decision-making

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I have a friend who is faced with an important decision. She has been going back and forth for a long time now, and can’t make up her mind.

I don’t know the answer either; only she can really know. I have asked her if a sounding board might help her on her way, but it appears that maybe the weight of this choice is just too much for her to face at all. She wishes with all her might that the decision would be made, for once and for all, allowing her to move on, but she is the only one who can decide. And so she goes through her days with a very large burden always on her shoulders.

As a last offering to my friend, I suggested meditation. She could practice clearing her mind of the chatter that was constantly messing with her. By breathing and sitting mindfully, she might be able to find some refreshment, even if just for twenty minutes.

I don’t know if she has taken my suggestion to heart, and truly, I don’t need to know. But it has been a good reminder for me too, of the importance of giving oneself the gift of mindfulness — to sit quietly, focusing on breathing or a mantra, releasing any thoughts as they come up. Or to take a walk in total awareness of your surroundings, allowing all attention to be rooted in the present. Noticing the sounds and the colors and the way one’s feet come in contact with the earth or floor. Practicing mindful concentration can feel so freeing. And dismissing the chatter? Priceless.

This can be more difficult than it sounds. The more challenging it is, however, the more helpful it can be to keep practicing! And it is so pleasant to arrive at a place of freshness and renewed vitality, such as that which a short period of lovely meditation can bring.

Mindfulness will not make your decisions for you, but from that place, you can take a look at them from a new vantage point, and perhaps the path toward the answer will come into sharper focus. There is nothing like a clear head when important thinking needs to happen.

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there are so many ways to stand up for love.

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Those who practice on the Buddhist path learn about and follow the example of Avalokita, the bodhisattva who hears the cries of the world. We train in how to respond to suffering, both for ourselves and for all beings. It is a fundamental aspect of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘Engaged Buddhism.’

This has never been more needed than it is right now. As the very fabric of our world seems more and more in danger of unraveling, there is much that Buddhist practitioners can do. By bringing courageous hearts and calm minds to bear, we carry tremendous strength. These are the most powerful weapons on earth, and I feel deeply that they are the best hope for our future.

Standing together with our neighbors, we can use the tools of non-violence and loving kindness to protect the vulnerable, to counter oppression and marginalization, and to work for a more just and caring society. We can train for a new leadership paradigm, one that does not discriminate, but considers the interests of all beings.

Practitioners are called to remember that we are all one. We are the earth and we are the poor. The voices that cry out in suffering are our own voices. They are the voices of our loved ones. To turn away from the plight of our nation, our planet and its vulnerable inhabitants is to turn away from ourselves, to turn away from our children. We are our own great-great grandchildren.

To take action, we can work on our own personal suffering. This is a very healthy way to contribute to the resistance. You can listen deeply and understand the cause of your own pain. You can train in true compassion and non-discrimination, and you can search for peace within yourself – a lifetime’s practice. And when we can use our mindfulness to find balance in the present moment, when we are indiscriminately compassionate, when we meet hatred head on with courage and love, each of us is a tower of strength. Each of us is a beacon of light.

The fact that Avalokita is often represented as having so many arms is a reminder that there are so many ways to respond. There are so many ways to stand up for love. Whether you march, write a check, meditate, run for office or show more kindness as you walk through your day, these are all ways to address the suffering in the world.

there for you

There for you

The universe is always there for you. How wonderful! Just as you create your own life through your actions, you can make a conscious decision to make your own connection to the cosmos. You can listen deeply for messages being sent your way, and you can call on strength when you need it.

There may be times when you don’t feel that connection, because things aren’t going well or you are out of sorts. You are cut off somehow, maybe overly distracted or ‘up inside your head.’ The truth is, however, that the universe will always be there, just as the air is always there for you to breathe. You don’t even have to think about it. You just breathe, and there it is.

You can also make the conscious decision to take a slow, deep breath, and feel the air coming powerfully in and going easily out. After even a few breaths, you feel refreshed and calmed. And the more that you invest yourself in breathing mindfully, the more benefit you find. Is the air somehow different? No, it is your choice that has made the difference. The air is the same, always there.

Reconnecting with the universe is as easy as taking a deep breath. Inhaling, you fill your body with life-giving oxygen, and when you exhale, you release the used air. Feel your cells react to each new in-breath, and relax each time you breathe out. Whether you spend a longer time in meditation, or simply take a moment to close your eyes and practice mindful breathing, you are moving in the direction of that deep stillness within you. This is the place you can feel your oneness with all beings, the source from which great love and compassion arise. This is the place where you can touch the truth.

May it be a comfort to you, when you feel at odds with life, to take a simple breath and find your way back home.

It is there, always, for you.

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?

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.

Stopping

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Stopping has a special place in the Buddhist path. It is closely tied to insight, finding peace, and moving past our habit energies, those behaviors that block the path to insight and liberation.

There is a story that speaks of a man riding a horse. The horse is galloping very fast, and another man on the side of the road calls out, “Where are you going?” “I don’t know!” replies the rider. “Ask the horse!”

This story illustrates how our habit energy works. The horse represents our habit energy, the whims of which we seem powerless to control. When we feel a strong emotion like fear, depression or anxiety, we quickly become caught in a very uncomfortable storm. Just as quickly, our habit energies take over and our reaction is to turn on the television, have a drink or two or head for the refrigerator – whatever it is that we perceive will take away the uncomfortable feeling. Invariably, this does not work, and leaves us worse off than before.

Our habit energies are very powerful – no matter how many times we pledge to behave differently next time, we will continue to fall back into the same patterns again and again. It’s not that we want to, but we do not know what else to do. How can we better deal with these moments?

The answer, according to Buddhism, is to learn the art of stopping. The man on the horse would do well to learn how to stop his horse, and so can we learn to stop our habit energy, turning instead to that which will bring us peace. And what is that thing? What will help us to stop? We can learn to stop through mindfulness. It is very simple: when we use mindfulness, whether it is mindful walking, mindful breathing or any other way to be present, we will find ourselves immediately in a place of understanding and loving kindness. We need only to say, “I see you, habit energy, but you will not trick me this time! I will stop. I will be mindful.”

Mindfulness is the miracle. By simply being present, we can use the miracle of mindfulness to recognize our habit energy. We can stop our runaway horse.

breathing unites us

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How wonderful that we have a built-in mechanism for focusing – it is our breath. It has always been there, and yet, once you begin to discover its usefulness in calming your mind, you will wonder how you could have overlooked it for so long.

Each breath is an opportunity to come back to the present. It doesn’t matter if we are sick or poor or lost in deep despair – it is accessible to anyone, whenever you want it.

As you learn to be with your breath, you will become aware of a myriad of distractions – thoughts, sounds, sensations — they are everywhere! The trick is to let them go. Just keep letting them go. Smile and come back to your breathing. This is your time to just breathe.

A trick I learned once is to imagine a small windmill at the back of your throat. As you breathe in, the windmill turns one way, then it slows and maybe even comes to a stop before beginning to turn the other way with your outbreath.

As you begin the transition from a scattered mind to a focused, calm, observant mind, you will be amazed to realize how cluttered your mind is – an important first step.

Your breathing is a miracle. It is the same miracle that exists in every living being. Breathing connects us to each other. It is life. It is God. It is greater than any of us.