gratitude training

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I’ve thought a lot about this. There have been times in my life when I just could not access gratitude in my heart. And I thought to myself, well, I can just make do with appreciation. But I was missing out.

Taking the time to smell the roses, the coffee, the baby’s hair after a bath or the salt air off the ocean increases their benefit. That’s appreciation – our ability to get pleasure out of things – and it goes hand in hand with gratitude. In fact, I have found that these two really need to walk side by side. Focusing only on the things we appreciate — without the gratitude part — will eventually leave us feeling empty.

How then, do we develop these skills, that we may fully enjoy the bounty in our lives? Try gratitude training. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I take for granted?
  • What freedoms, unique abilities, and options do I have that others don’t?
  • What advantages have I been given in life?
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Which allies and supporters have helped me to get to where I am?

Everyone has been given unique abilities, advantages and privileges, and no one has done it all by themselves. But we are inclined to adapt to good things. We start to take them for granted, causing their value in our lives to drop. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the example of a toothache. When we have a toothache, it is all we can think about. But on all the days when we do not have a toothache, do we even think about that? If you find you are taking something for granted – like the absence of a toothache — go back to the beginning and imagine your life without it.

As you ask yourself these training questions, the gratitude will begin to flow, and you may experience more alertness and at the same time more calm. You may find your capacity to love is greater. And as you become trained in gratitude, you will surely find it easier to access feelings of contentment in your day.

So be grateful for sunlight and trees. Acknowledge the people in your life. Say thanks – it makes people happier, strengthens emotional and social bonds, and it gives your mind a dose of pure goodness as well. As the Buddha is said to have said,

“In the light of our vision,
the perspective that allows us to be grateful
– even if it is that things are not worse –
we can find freedom and joy:
our thoughts are peace,
our words are peace
and our work is peace.”

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stopping your mental chatter

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Everything needs to be nurtured in order to survive. If we do not nurture something, it will not survive. Our suffering survives because we spend so much of our energy feeding it. We feed it with our attention and our anxiety and our depression, and then we try to distract ourselves so we won’t think about our suffering. Either way, we are caught up in something other than living our lives.

This scenario is very common. The mind races or becomes overwhelmed. We look for a way out, invariably choosing the least healthy path, when the healthiest path is as easy as taking a deep breath or stopping to notice our surroundings. As we inhale and exhale consciously, we find ourselves in the present, where the past and the future don’t reside. We unite the mind and the body, and when this happens, it is finally possible to take a break from the relentless, largely unproductive chatter that we so often feel lost in.

To take a deep breath is to allow freshness and vitality into the moment, and in that moment we can access clarity and presence.

How to reach enlightenment

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Well. The fun part of naming a blog post in such a manner is that it is everything and at the same time nothing. Just like everything else about Zen, it is everything and nothing. The search for enlightenment is a life’s practice for some, while for others it is virtually meaningless. It is, however, tied to meditation.

And meditation, well. It is simply a training of one’s mental attention, isn’t it? Interesting that you can train your mental attention — your very concentration. And yet meditation can awaken us beyond our conditioned mind and habitual energies, revealing to us the true nature of reality through presence.

The classic image is that of a learned yogi sitting for hours on end, chanting his mantra as incense burns nearby. While this is a very beautiful way to experience the wonder of meditation, and may in fact reveal more than any other method, it is not the only way. And let’s face it: this method is not going to fly off the shelves for most Westerners. We like multi-tasking. We like to check things off the list. Sitting quietly, not doing anything for great lengths of time is not something we are going to put at the center of our daily routine. We have meetings to go to and things to check off. We are very busy!

Here is the good news: there are ways to receive the benefit of meditation that take only a few minutes out of your day. You don’t even have to sit down. Best of all, for us modern consumers, the benefit takes effect instantly.

I’m referring to mindfulness, a clear recognition of what is happening here and now. It refers to being present, being fully where you are at any given moment. It is being at the beach when you are at the beach – not thinking about tomorrow or yesterday or anything at all except what is right in the present moment. You can do it anywhere and everywhere. Taking the time each day to sit in meditation is more powerful than I can explain, but if you start with simple mindfulness, you might be convinced to try a little more once you are farther down the road.

So, you can eat an orange mindfully – how hard is it to concentrate on an orange for a few moments? The bright color, the juice hidden in each section, the oil in the peel, and the fresh flavor in your mouth. Every time you find your mind wandering away, come back to concentrating on the orange. If you like, you can imagine the tree it grew on, and the seed deep in the earth from which the tree grew. Notice the way the peel may come away in a curlicue or in great chunks. And, by the time the orange has been consumed, you have taken a mindfulness break, and you may well feel a certain refreshment. Next time, perhaps you will wash the dishes mindfully or focus your awareness on your breathing for three breaths.

The greatest thing about mindfulness for me is that the past and the future are not there. There is only the here and the now. Eventually, you can train your concentration to meditate even when something big is weighing heavily on your mind. During times of great anxiety or deep sadness, it is a miracle to be able to take a breather. To stop, put down the heavy load, and just be.

We who are always doing need to learn the art of being. We can benefit from learning how to stop, to calm ourselves, to rest and to heal. And when we practice being — whether or not we achieve enlightenment — we can go to places hitherto only dreamed of.

shenpa

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How is it that we are so often unhappy, when happiness is an almost universal goal in our culture? We seem to be just terrible at this. With the best of intentions – to get where we want to be and find relief from our suffering – we are inclined to go about seeking happiness in ways that are doomed from the start, and will make us feel even worse down the road.

It all stems from what Buddhists call shenpa. Shenpa is about those habits we always fall back on that never work. Many of us have some habit, whether it is eating or drinking or spending money, as a way to cope with anxiety, depression, boredom or loneliness. We know we will feel lousy the next day, but we always do it. Or we tangle ourselves up in self-righteous road rage, only to be left full of empty anger when the driver stops doing the annoying thing or drives off. Or maybe we get defensive or lash out when we get triggered by something that makes us uncomfortable. Maybe we close down; maybe we try to smooth everything over. That’s shenpa.

Every time we participate in our habitual patterns, we reinforce their power. And the attachment to these habits is very strong. Something happens, and we immediately withdraw, tighten up, lash out or otherwise go into the pattern that leads us away from the basic openness and goodness of our being. We may be able to feel it as it is happening, but we feel powerless to do anything about it. Because we empower shenpa with the notion that it will bring us comfort, that it will remove our unease, we get hooked.

To rise above shenpa – to free ourselves from the unhealthy cycle of getting attached to or hooked by triggers – we must be willing to renounce the urge to fall into the comfortable pattern. This is a very challenging proposition unless one has something with which to replace the urge. In the Buddhist tradition, the urge is replaced by mindfulness, by catching oneself in the act of closing down and replacing it with loving kindness and compassion for self. I know I don’t like this shenpa path, we say to ourselves, so if I can stay with the discomfort as a big brother would stay with a little brother, I am being there for myself.

Having a meditation practice is most useful for renouncing shenpa. Meditation teaches us how to open and relax to whatever arises, without picking or choosing. We can begin to see our reaction to the trigger with clarity and without judgment. We can use our innate intelligence as a force stronger than shenpa.

Every time you can catch yourself before becoming attached to your habit energy, the shenpa pathway becomes weaker. You now have the opportunity to observe yourself and begin to understand the root cause of your attachment. In the freshness of realization and gentle compassion, you can see how the hook grabs you.

This is a lifetime practice. It does not happen quickly, and it may never be fully behind you. It is important not to get attached to overcoming shenpa – this is just more shenpa! One needs to remember to be compassionate with self. Treat yourself with loving kindness, be willing to practice, and develop an enthusiasm for breaking the chain reaction. Now is the perfect time to begin!

who will walk with you today?

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I lost my beautiful mother when I was a young girl.

I am lucky because I was old enough that I remember her.

I suffer because, in remembering her,

I know what I lost when she died.

 

And when I practice walking meditation,

I invite my mother to walk with me.

When my mother walks with me, I am graced by her presence,

and with every step, my mother’s footfall graces the earth.

When I walk with my mother, I feel her love for me,

and my heart is full and free.

 

Who will walk with you today?

when is a flower not a flower?

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Being, non-being and interbeing.

I am so fascinated by this notion of Buddhist wisdom, which teaches us that there can be a flower only because there is everything that is not a flower!

What the heck, you may ask! Take heart. I will give some illustrations. They are not original to me but have been retold many times. Understand them and you will be fascinated too, and maybe you’ll think on it some more. Eventually, you may have a glimmer, as I do, of the brilliance of this ancient path.

Suppose I strike a match on its box, causing it to burst into flame. Where did the flame come from? Was it nothing before I performed my act of striking the match? And when I blow it out, will it go back to being nothing again? No. A scientist will tell you that, for fire to happen, there must necessarily be the correct combination of elements, which were all present when I struck the match. I simply helped bring together the conditions for the flame to manifest as such.

Consider a thing, an object. Think of a piece of paper. Was it once nothing and then suddenly became? When did it come to be something? Was it at the paper mill, when the pulp from a tree was run through the paper-making processes? No, there was still something. The tree, that gave its fiber for the pulp, was something, as was the seed from which the tree grew. Were it not for the mill and the workers – and of course the tree – the paper would not be possible. It needed the right conditions to manifest as paper. And were it not for sun and water and soil and air, the tree would not be possible. So, when we hold a piece of paper in our hands, we are holding the mill and the workers and the sunshine and all the rest. There was never nothing.

So, for the flame and the piece of paper and the flower to manifest, there must exist all the necessary conditions. Take away the sunshine and there is no tree, no flower, no paper. Take away any one of the conditions necessary and there is no tree or flame or flower or paper. So the Buddhists say that a flower is made of non-flower elements. You cannot have a flower unless you have all the elements. Fascinating, don’t you think? This is inter-being.

Once we begin to understand inter-being, we see that everything is dependent on everything else. We are all inter-being. You yourself were never nothing. You are composed entirely of non-you elements. Take away any of it — oxygen, your ancestors, sun and water and trees – and you cannot be. Which makes it so easy to understand why we must be careful with the air and the water and the trees and each other! We all inter-are.

the force

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So many of us are feeling edgy and unsure right now. The level of tension is rising palpably.

We deal with it in so many different ways. Some of us take up activism, making phone calls, sharing links to important information and getting on busses to attend marches around the country. Some of us prepare for the worst, stocking up on provisions, maybe even creating shelters from whatever apocalypse is coming our way. Some of us pray. Some of us keep right on playing Farmville.

I myself have done – or at least considered – each of these alternatives, but it is so hard not to panic a little, no matter what you do. From climate change to corporate greed to the political landscape, there is this vision of us all sliding into a future that does not resemble anything we can imagine or even talk about. It is a place where no one wants to be. No one. Sometimes it seems to me like a roar, a cacophony on full blast. A catastrophe is barreling towards us. What can we do?

Rather than thinking about doing, try thinking about being. Try being the change you want to see in the world. Try being peace.

I am convinced that non-violence is the only thing that is going to work. Practicing mindfulness and loving kindness is the most powerful force we have. Look at Turkey, where thousands of people have taken to simply standing in complete silence as a response to the actions of their government. They have baffled the police by simply creating a calm presence instead of creating aggression and tension.

We may not be able to escape the catastrophe, but this is beside the point. The sooner we start giving peace a chance, the better chance we have.

We must know one another. We must be friendly to everyone we meet, whether that person be homeless or homophobe. We are brothers and sisters. We all live together on the same planet. And we share so much! For example: in my limited research, people do not react badly to being smiled at while passing me in the street. It’s a commonality. A tiny one, but it is a wonderful one because people so often smile back.

Everyone on this planet needs the same things. Besides a safe place to live and food to eat and access to health care, everyone needs love and kindness and respect.

Non-violence is the force that will change the world.

cultivating calm

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In these anxious times, it is a good idea to bring calm into your life. Doing this (or should I say, being this) is simple and perhaps obvious, but a reminder and a path are sometimes called for.

Mindfulness is the first step, bringing your mind into the present. Supporting your body in such a way as to encourage calm is the next.

After that, it is useful to wean yourself away from excitement – the adrenaline fix to which we become, often unwittingly, attached. Excitement takes so many forms, and we are so habitual about going there. We must be deliberate in finding those ways we become hooked.

Anger, for example, is a source of excitement. We are so frequently irritated by things; we use that habit energy to take us in the direction of those things about which we obsess, to the point where they can engage our very sense of self.

Try catching yourself the next time you feel irked by something. Take a few deep breaths and bring yourself into the present, into a place of calm. You may find that there are positive side effects: Calm and insight are quite complementary. The deeper the calm, the greater the potential for insight. Be peace.