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Showing posts from 2013

Gift to the Soul: The Space of Presence

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For many of us this is a season when it feels that we are going faster and faster. Everything’s racing, through school semesters, wrapping up work commitments, entering the holidays; the currents of life are in full tilt.

Given the time of year, one student fell into a period of intense stress resulting from a cycle of classes, studying, working and little sleep. He didn’t realize how long he had neglected to write home until he received the following note:


Dear Son,
Your mother and I enjoyed your last letter.
Of course, we were much younger then and more impressionable.
Love,
Dad
As you know, it’s not just students. Some months ago a friend described getting caught in this state busy-ness while trying to get her daughter to school. She was busy getting things ready while her daughter was trying to show her something. Every time her daughter would call her over she would say, “Just hang on a moment. I’ll be there in a second.” After several rounds of this, the little four-year old came o…

Lessons from Kayaking: Finding a way to be with fear

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Most of us spend a lot of our lives tensed up in fear, or pushing against fear. The fear might be fear of:     Something going wrong
   Not being good enough
   Not being loved
   Losing something or someone        we hold dear
What fears do you live with?
The key to being with fear is in contacting what is here now, rather than trying to push it away. Here’s a story from the river that helps us understand that. In kayaking, you learn about what is called a keeper hole. It’s a swirl in the river that catches a boat or a body and pulls it down under the water. You can drown because you get stuck in that swirling current and you can’t get out of it.  If you get caught in a keeper hole, the only way out is actually to dive right into the center, down as far and deep as you can, toward the bottom, because if you get to the bottom you can swim out the side of the swirl. So you do the opposite of what your instincts tell you to do. Your instinct, of course, is to fight your way to the surface.…

Absolute Cooperation with the Inevitable

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The modern-day mystic and Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello once said: “Enlightenment is absolute cooperation with the inevitable.” This statement struck a deep chord within me. It seems to me that what he meant was  to be absolutely open to life as it is.
Think about the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean that flows from the tip of Florida up along the eastern seaboard. If you were to put a straw in the water, aligned with the Gulf Stream, it would move with the flow of water. The water moves through it and carries it along on the current. Everything is aligned; it’s total grace. Now, if it’s misaligned, and it’s not moving with the flow of water, it gets spun around and moves off course.

Aligning ourselves with the flow of aliveness is an essential part of our mindfulness practice. Like the straw, if we move out of alignment, we’re moving away, spinning about, in reaction…in some way unable to be one with the flow of grace.  So we seek to stay aligned, letting the flow of life move thr…

A Gesture of Kindness

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The next time you find yourself in a bad mood, take a moment to pause and ask yourself, “What is my attitude toward myself right now? Am I relating to myself with judgment … or with mindfulness, warmth, and respect?”
Typically, you’ll find that when you’re anxious, lonely, or depressed, you’re also down on yourself in some way, and that undercurrent of feeling deficient or unworthy is what’s keeping you cut off from your own aliveness, as well as your feeling of connection with others.
The way of healing and homecoming begins with what I call “a gesture of kindness.” You might for instance put your hand on your heart—letting the touch be tender—and send a message inwardly. It might be “It’s okay, sweetheart.” Or  “I care about this suffering.” Or, “I’m sorry and I love you.”  Often, it’s simply,  “This, too.”
Sometimes, this gesture of kindness includes saying “yes” to whatever’s going on—the yes meaning, “This is what’s happening, it’s how life is right now … it’s okay.”
If you’re rea…

From Self-judgment to Compassion

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We were three days into a weeklong meditation retreat when one of my students, Daniel, came in to see me for his first interview. He plopped down in the chair across from me, and immediately pronounced himself The Most Judgmental Person In The World.
“Whatever I’m thinking or feeling when I meditate … I end up finding something wrong with it. During walking practice or eating, I start thinking I should be doing it better, more mindfully. When I’m doing the loving-kindness meditation, my heart feels like a cold stone.” Whenever Daniel’s back hurt while he was sitting, or whenever he got lost in thought, he’d rail at himself for being a hopeless meditator.
He confessed that he even felt awkward coming in for our interview, afraid he’d be wasting my time. While others weren’t exempt from his barrage of hostility, most of it was directed at himself. “I know that Buddhist teachings are based on being compassionate” he said bitterly, “but it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever rub off on me.”
Like…

The Transforming Power of Mindful Prayer

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Although not always highlighted in the West, prayer and devotion are a living stream in Buddhism. The earnest wishes expressed in the practices of lovingkindness and compassion—May I be happy, May You be free from suffering—are forms of prayer. The aspiration to find refuge in the Buddha (or Buddha “awakened” nature) is an expression of devotion to truth and freedom.
When we’re suffering and turn to prayer, no matter what the apparent reasons for our pain, the basic cause is always the same: we feel separate and alone. John O’Donohue, in his book Eternal Echoes, writes: “Prayer is the voice of longing; it reaches outwards and inwards to unearth our ancient belonging.” This is a beautiful description of what I call mindful prayer. We reach not just outward to know our belonging, but with mindful prayer we also turn inward and listen deeply to the suffering that is giving rise to our prayer. When we are willing to touch the pain of separation—the loneliness, the fear, the hurt--, our lon…

Can You Medicate Meditation?

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The use of anti-depressants by those involved in meditation practice is a very hot topic. Students often ask me things like, “If I take Prozac, isn’t that as good as giving up? Aren’t I admitting that meditation doesn’t work?”
Those who’ve been advised by a doctor to consider medication tell me they are afraid of becoming dependent on it, afraid they’ll never function again without it. Some wonder if taking medication doesn’t directly undercut the process of spiritual awakening.
They ask, “Don’t medications numb the very experiences we are trying to unconditionally accept? Wouldn’t liberation be impossible if we were on medication?” One student even quipped, “It’s hard to imagine the Buddha reaching for Prozac while under the Bodhi Tree.”
It’s true that some of the most widely used anti-depressants can create a sense of distance from acute fear, and a degree of emotional numbing. It’s also possible to become at least psychologically dependant on any substance that provides relief.
Ye…

Joy

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Not too long ago, my ex-husband, Alex, brought us a big batch of his homemade almond butter. It is such a really delicious treat. I took a bite, and as I tasted it, I thought, “This is so good! I’m going to have some more.” And then immediately I thought, “No, I can’t have more. I’ll feel sick if I have too much.” So here I was, thinking about feeling sick in the middle of a good taste! Instead of savoring that wonderful flavor and pausing long enough to enjoy that deliciousness, my thoughts took me away from that simple pleasure.

This experience reminded me of how easily we can bypass the joy that lives in such small moments. I was also reminded that we can cultivate our capacity for joy by purposefully pausing in those moments when we experience even the
slightest tendril of delight or just a hint of “Ah…happiness.”

I often turn to Mary Oliver as one of the poets who most inspires me to pause and savor the moment.

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task to ask
of anythi…

The Trance of Fear

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All of us live with fear. Whenever fear takes over, we’re caught in what I call the trance of fear. As we tense in anticipation of what may go wrong, our heart and mind contract. We forget that there are people who care about us, and about our own ability to feel spacious and openhearted. Trapped in the trance, we can experience life through the filter of fear, and when we do, the emotion becomes the core of our identity, constricting our capacity to live fully.
This trance usually begins in childhood, when we experience fear in relating to our significant others. Perhaps as an infant our crying late at night may have frustrated our exhausted mother. When we saw her frowning face and heard her shrill tone, suddenly we felt unsafe with the person we most counted on for safety. Our arms and fists tightened, our throat contracted, our heartbeat raced.
This physical reaction of fear in response to disapproval may have happened repeatedly through our early years. We might have tried out some…

From Longing to Belonging

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The great Tibetan yogi Milarepa spent many years living in isolation in a mountain cave. As part of his spiritual practice, he began to see the contents of his mind as visible projections. His inner demons of lust, passion, and aversion would appear before him as gorgeous seductive women and terrifying wrathful monsters. In face of these temptations and horrors, rather than being overwhelmed, Milarepa would sing out, “It is wonderful you came today, you should come again tomorrow … from time to time we should converse.” Through his years of intensive training, Milarepa learns that suffering only comes from being seduced by the demons or from trying to fight them. To discover freedom in their presence, he has to experience them directly and wakefully, as they are. In one story, Milarepa’s cave becomes filled with demons. Facing the most persistent, domineering demon in the crowd, Milarepa makes a brilliant move—he puts his head into the demon’s mouth. In that moment of full surrender, al…

Taking Refuge in the Buddha

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As a teacher I’m often asked: What does it mean in Buddhist practice when you agree to “take refuge” in the Buddha? Does this mean I need to worship the Buddha? Or pray to the Buddha? Isn’t this setting up the Buddha as “other” or some kind of god?

Traditionally, there are three fundamental refuges are where we can find genuine safety and peace, a sanctuary for our awakening heart and mind, a place to rest our human vulnerability. In their shelter, we can face and awaken from the trance of fear.

The first of these is the Buddha, or our own awakened nature. The second is the dharma (the path or the way), and the third is the sangha (the community of aspirants).

In the formal practice of Taking Refuge, we recite three times: “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha.” Yet, even though there is a formula, this is not an empty or mechanical ritual, but a practice meant to expand our understanding and intention.

With each repetition, we allow oursel…