A Course on Mindfulness

As part of its ongoing series of introductory courses in meditation and Buddhism, Triratna-NYC is offering a Course on Mindfulness, beginning Thursday, February 19th, 2015. The course runs for four Thursdays, ending March 9th. It meets from 7pm to 9pm in Midtown, at 347 West 36th, suite 1000, between Eighth and Ninth.

Mindfulness is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot today, and it seems to mean different things to different people. We’ve asked Padmadharini, an experienced teacher and Order Member at Triratna-NYC, for her thoughts on mindfulness and the course, which she will be leading.

Padmadharini, an experienced Triratna teacher and Order Member, who will be leading the course on mindfulness

This course focuses on mindfulness. Can you give a quick summary of what mindfulness means to you?

Mindfulness is, very simply, paying attention in this moment to what is happening, without judgement. It is a practice that takes us out of the mode of being on “automatic pilot” when we can miss so much of the amazing stuff that is happening right here and now.  It also helps us to come back to the present moment at times when thoughts and thinking can take us into stressful or dark places.

Why the focus on mindfulness? What do you expect people to get out of this course?

The course will teach some simple techniques that help us to arrive in this moment.  They generally involve grounding experience in the body. The research points to how quickly these practices begin to transform experience and how we cope and deal with things. So even a 4 week course can be quite transformative.

Who is the course for?

This course is for complete beginners or for those with experience of Buddhism or meditation.  It’s all about your own experiences, so wherever you are it will be beneficial.

Is there any sort of required experience or background?

Life experience is what is needed. The willingness to come with whatever is going on with you at this moment, and to apply the techniques you’ll learn to those issues.

You’ve taught many courses with Triratna. What would say is your style of teaching?

I’m very participatory and conversational. I don’t like lecturing at people. This course is designed to be inquiry-based – you’ll try things out and then reflect on what you experienced.  So it’s not about me telling you how mindfulness should be, but about seeing what actually happens when you bring more mindfulness to your experiences.

And what is the general air of the typical Triratna course?

Triratna is very diverse in its teaching, and as an ecumenical tradition, we draw on all the Buddhist lineages and practices.  We also have a strong focus on friendship and connecting. So as a teacher, I’m usually trying to engage people and give them an opportunity to get to know me and my practice.

From your perspective, what is the most important thing a student new to meditation or mindfulness should keep in mind right from the start?

Learning mindfulness or meditation takes time. It’s a practice, and like any practice, the more time and energy you dedicate to it, the more you’ll get out of it. It’s never quite what you expect, and that’s what I love about these practices.  The surprises they deliver up – which you could say is what “insights” are all about.

 

This is a great opportunity to learn how to live more mindfully, and less on automatic pilot. If you’re interested in the course, please visit us to learn more or to enroll. And if you have any questions, feel free to contact us.

We hope to see you there!

 

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The Mindfulness of Dog

Dante_Shrine_small
Dante in front of the shrine

Four of us from the New York sangha spent this past weekend upstate, in rural (and currently rather snowy) Columbia County. By four of us, I mean four of us human beings. There were also three dogs among us: little Mona, medium-sized Dante, and bigger Inu. The ride up was surprisingly tranquil, despite all seven mammals being carefully wedged into a not-so-spacious hybrid car. The dogs seemed to get on famously, having decided to overlook whatever nuttiness it was on the part of their human companions that had brought everyone together in such a small space for a two-hour-plus drive.

We decided on the drive up that we’d meditate together in the mornings. We were all going to do so anyway, so it made sense to make an impromptu shrine area somewhere in the house and sit together.

An aside. The small dog, Mona, is mine. She’s a pug, and she’s over fourteen years old. If you know pugs, you know that they make a not-insubstantial amount of snorting noises. The older Mona has gotten, the more impressive her wet, smacking, slurping, snorting repertoire has become. I’ve meditated with her at my side many times. I certainly don’t set it up that way, but very often I sit to meditate, and at some point she gets bored and comes looking for me. Clip-clip-clip down the hallway I hear her nails, and then comes the symphony of mouth and nose noises, with an occasional spray on my arm. Without fail, she decides that my sit is over before the timer has, so she starts to mewl, or paw my arm. Not paying attention to Mona is simply not an option.

I call her the Sixth Hindrance.

So you can imagine that I was a bit apprehensive about exposing my friends to all of this while they meditated. She didn’t disappoint, but she was hardly alone. From all three dogs there were a lot of licking sounds, licking of paws, of undercarriages, of the floor, of our arms… There was a lot of restless movement, at first at least. There was slapping of tails against us as the dogs weaved in and out of the circle we formed. There was nuzzling. There was slurping of water in the catch-basins at the bottom of the planters. There was sniffing of, well, pretty much everything around us. And there was the occasional period of heavy barking and mad-dashing around the house every time the radiator made an odd noise or one of them saw a squirrel or deer through the window.

But here’s the strange thing. Particularly on Sunday, our second morning, we agreed that we’d had a really good sit. We were doing the Mindfulness of Breathing, and typically it’s quite a challenge to keep my mind focused on the breath for very long. But not so on Sunday. I had what seemed like long stretches of strong focus and concentration, with very little distraction or wandering. And I wasn’t alone in experiencing that, despite the bouts of doggy bedlam going on around us.

I wonder if it was the degree to which one distraction completely overwhelmed every other potential distraction. The dog noises were so front-and-center that all of the other needling distractions that I usually face didn’t stand a chance of gaining prominence. And at the same time, I was completely relaxed about the dog noises. If it had just been Mona I probably would have been mortified. But it was Mona, Dante, and Inu, all dogs being dogs and doing what dogs do. We also all took a rather light-hearted approach to the whole situation. There was just no way to take the tableau seriously. There we were, sitting in a circle around an improvised shrine, chanting the Refuges and Precepts in Pali as the dogs wandered in and out, wagging their tails, nuzzling us, wondering what on earth it was we were doing.

I don’t think I’ll be adding the Mindfulness of Dog to my regular meditation routine. But as they often are, these dogs were good teachers. They seemed to say: Relax, and enjoy the situation. There’s nothing you can do to change our nature, so just be with it and see what happens.

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My Mind on a Month of Meditation

man_meditating-mod-modToday is the 37th day of 2015, which means that I’ve meditated every day for 37 days straight. Yes, I admit that it was a New Year’s Resolution. I’d gotten sloppy and lax in my meditation practice, among other things, during the holidays. The changing of the year seemed like a good time to get back in the habit, so I made a commitment to sit every day.

37 days is hardly a record for anyone, not even for me, and my meditation practice is modest and middle of the road at best. But these 37 days follow a long stretch of sloppy, on-and-off, half-hearted meditating, so it’s an interesting time to do a contrast between now and December to see what meditation has brought me. Of course this is my experience, and yours or anyone else’s would probably be a bit different. For what it’s worth, here’s one person’s experience after a modest, attainable, far-from-monklike 37 days of meditation.

I’m happier. Happiness is not the goal of meditation, at least as I understand it. But happiness, or perhaps more accurately contentedness, seems to be a by-product. I don’t fully understand it, but I think it may have something to do with expectations. I find that when I meditate regularly, my expectations are not as sharp or demanding. I don’t mean that my expectations are lowered, they’re just tamed. With tamed expectations, there are fewer barriers between me and contentedness and even happiness.

I pay closer attention. You know that thing that we all do when a spouse, partner, friend or colleague is talking to us, and our minds wander? Our eyes glaze a bit, and then suddenly we jump back to ourselves, completely giving away that fact that we haven’t really been paying attention. I find that I do that a lot less. Meditation is training to stay in the moment, to not let our minds wander. That has a lot of great benefits for us individually – for example not letting our heads run away with stories and fantasies that bring us strong emotions tied to absolutely nothing but a mental fabrication. But it’s also nice on the people we share our lives with. We get to experience them, and all the small moments that make up our day, more fully, with less judgment or prejudice or baggage.

I’m not as reactive. This is related to paying closer attention. If your head is fully in a moment, and your mind is kept from taking some kernel of a thought and running away with it to tell you all sorts of crazy stories, you simply experience more and react less. For example, I found myself in exactly the same morning rush hour traffic yesterday as I had been in about three months ago. (This is rare; I live in Manhattan and hardly ever drive, but had to go to the same place at the same time on these two separate occasions.) Back in November, I first got annoyed, and then I slowly began to panic as my mind told me stories about being late to this appointment and convinced me of all of the horrible tragedies that would follow. Yesterday, there was no panic. Maybe a flurry of anxiety, which I took note of, but which never took hold of me. Instead of irrational panic, I saw the obvious: I had a cell phone and could call if I was running late. There wasn’t even any guarantee that I would be late. Either way, there was not much I could do about the traffic then, other than make a note that I’d have to leave a bit earlier the next time.

I sleep better. This is a huge deal for me. I’ve struggled with insomnia for years, and have had to resort to all sorts of pharmaceutical help. Again, it’s a head game that I play with myself. Once I turn off the light and realize that I’m not feeling sleepy and drifting off right away, I start to panic, and then I start to tell myself feverish stories of never being able to sleep again. You can imagine where that goes. Being in the moment – simply feeling my breath, scanning my body for where there is tension or aches, noting but not following any negative emotions – short-circuits that whole process. If you’re only in the present, those feverish stories have nowhere to live. Surprise, sleeps comes for me, not immediately, but eventually.

I have more aha moments. With a somewhat stiller mind, I’ve found that I’m struck by seemingly random moments of clarity, even minor insights. I’m not talking at all about enlightenment-level insight, but still insight. I was on the subway the other day and suddenly I saw all of the people around me not as strangers of different genders, ages, races, and experiences, but as other types of me, and myself as another type of them. I looked at different people and was amazed by the realization that inside those heads – even through the closed, emotionless subway-face – I could see an interior world that would consist of minor variations on all of the themes that make up me: love, hope, fear, anger, grudges, friends, family, favorite foods, least favorite songs… Intellectually, this is nothing to write home about. But I knew it on an emotional level that really made me feel as one, for a fleeting moment, with everyone on the 3 Train.

It’s easier for me to meditate. Meditation has a momentum of its own. It can feel like a chore at times, but once there’s a critical mass of meditation, it becomes easier, more natural, and even more automatic to sit. And that just reinforces all of the good stuff.

 

 

 

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When Right Speech is Silence

empty(Image) We had quite a big snowstorm here in New York last week. You may have heard about it, or at least about the Onion’s brilliant satire of Mayor De Blasio’s portents of abject doom. Great stuff, and far more cataclysmic than what actually happened, at least here. (Sorry to our sangha mates at Boston; Aryaloka, NH; Portsmouth, NH; and Nagaloka, ME; who were hit for real.)

In New York, the greatest challenges came not from the storm, but rather from the panicked runs on delis, bodegas, and markets throughout the city before the storm. People were frightened by the hype, or at least playing it safe. If there was going to be nary a carton of milk or a loaf of bread in the Five Boroughs, most of us had little choice but to be swept up into the throngs packing every aisle, raiding every refrigerator case, and emptying every shelf.

So I gave in. My local market is called Westside Market. It’s got great food from around the world. Wonderful cheeses and breads and middle eastern spreads, great produce, rice and pasta, vegan and vegetarian meals. All gone, disappeared into the many bags and baskets making their way from aisle to aisle.

The really bad thing about Westside, though, is that it’s got narrow aisles. Not normal this-is-Manhattan narrow aisles, but crazy narrow aisles that barely one cart can fit down. And that night there were hoards of people pushing carts in different directions, each shopper moving to some secret choreography in their minds.

It was bedlam.

Which brings me to my dharma lesson of the night. When I arrived, I resolved to remain calm. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that only deluded expectations and (really) unrealistic demands I might make on my surroundings could shake me, not the surroundings themselves. So I was entirely in the driver’s seat, right?

Yes, I was, but I had a moment where I just simply forgot how to drive. I’d pushed through a knot of Columbia undergrads agonizing over brands of Greek yoghurt. I squeezed past the people ferreting out the French lentils; regular lentils would not do. I ran the gauntlet successfully, only to come up behind a woman, seemingly lost, parked right in the middle of an intersection thumbing through a shopping list, utterly unaware that she was blocking people in four different directions.

I stood there quietly for a moment, hoping she’d notice. She didn’t.

I cleared my throat a bit theatrically, hoping she’d hear. She didn’t.

“Ma’am? Would you mind moving a bit to the side so we can get by?” She stood there.

And that’s when I lost it, just for a moment. All of the anxiety I’d held bottled up, all of the annoyance at every single person I’d bumped into or been bumped into by, all of the buzzing electricity that everyone in that store and in the whole city felt… it all came bubbling up from inside me. I said something to her, not hideously awful or terribly vulgar, but certainly unskillful.

And absolutely no good came of it. She heard, but she didn’t move. I didn’t feel better about myself or my surroundings. The people around me weren’t given an easier path through the market. If anything, we were all dug in deeper. It was unskillful.

Setting aside the question of whether or not it was ever my place to “correct” this woman, standing obliviously in the middle of a store, blocking everyone around her, what could I (or anyone) have said? Was there a polite way to invite her to check her list somewhere else, a way of speech and body language that would:

  1. have presented the message in a gentle, non-confrontational way, since that usually works better,
  2. not made her feel bad about herself, since I had no way of knowing what was going on in her head and life,
  3. not given into my annoyance or made me look like a nasty, impatient jerk, since that’s always a good goal, and
  4. made things easier for her, me, and everyone else, since that should have been the whole point?

Probably, sure. If I’d been in a better frame of mind, less annoyed and anxious, more kind and charitable, and really creative about finding a way to communicate to precisely that person in precisely that situation, I might have been able to pull it off.

Again, setting aside the very important question of whether it was my place to do so at all. That’s a bigger knot to untie.

But I wasn’t in a better frame of mind, I was annoyed, anxious, and any kindness I might have had was a thin veneer stretched over a deep well of impatience and agitation. So the skillful thing to do would have been to keep my mouth shut, realizing that no good could have come out of my saying anything. Right speech would most certainly have been silence in this case.

I blew it, but I like to think I learned a lesson. Or at least been given yet another chance to learn an old, familiar lesson that’s expressed in the Serenity Prayer as well as the simple advice that sometimes it’s better to shut the heck up! Thankfully, I haven’t been in a similar situation since, where I could test myself to see if the lesson has stuck. But I’m sure it will happen, sooner rather than later.

After all, it’s supposed to snow again tomorrow.

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Reflection on the First Precept

One of our sangha members is doing the Foundations in Buddhist Contemplative Care program.  As part of her studies, she does monthly reflection papers on the five precepts. The following is a beautiful and thoughtful reflection that she wrote on the first precept.

In the Triratna Buddhist tradition, which I joined in 2008, we recite the first precept as follows:

I undertake the training principle of not harming living beings, [Negative form]
With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body. [Positive Form]

When I first heard the five precepts, this one felt like a ‘no brainer’.  I had been a vegetarian for years and remember secretly patting myself on the back and thinking “1 down, 4 to go”.

Now, 7 years on, I no longer have the view that I’ve ‘attained’ this precept in any real way.

I feel like the first precept is the Buddhist version of the Golden Rule, in that it ultimately covers all the other precepts.

    One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated. [Negative Form]
One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. [Positive Form]

If I follow the golden rule, and don’t harm myself or others, aren’t I really following all the other precepts? Non-Killing/Non-Harming seems to incorporate not stealing, right speech, right sexual conduct, not taking intoxicants.  Concerned with my actions as an individual and wanting to practice the precepts, I simply try to take care in my everyday life.

In reading chapter Six of Reb Anderson’s Being Upright, The Teaching of the Two Truths, I was interested to learn about the conventional truth aspect and ultimate truth aspect of the Bodhisattva precepts.  Anderson points out, when we can move beyond the conventional, we can practice the precepts not as something external we impose on ourselves and create anxiety around, but as natural expressions of our understanding of life.

Reflecting on these two aspects, it seems that I focus mainly on the foundational conventional truth level and haven’t really explored or moved towards the “ultimate truth” aspect as yet.

I reflect on how I kill in the area of consumption.  The skincare and cosmetics I currently use are not cruelty-free.  There are other items in our home that are not environment- or animal-friendly. I’ve simply been purchasing the cheapest or most convenient brands, without consideration of impact. I am starting to make changes in this area now.  Clothing is another area I have considered, but haven’t made any changes as yet.  I buy from big box stores where the labels say “Made in China/India/Vietnam”.  I don’t know the conditions the workers have, or if they are paid fairly. Price is my main driver.  The savings I enjoy may actually be paid by other people across the planet.  People whose birth just happened to be less fortunate than mine.  Does this give me the right to exploit them?  Am I not killing their health, their life expectancy, their happiness by feeding my desire for cheap clothing?  And perhaps is this too simple a view? What if that sweatshop work is actually a better choice than the alternative?  Low pay and exploitative conditions vs. no pay and starvation?  What is the ‘right’ thing here?

 “A bodhisattva sometimes finds it necessary to break a precept in the conventional sense in order to fulfill the compassionate purpose of his or her life”.

This is another idea in Anderson’s book that stood out to me as I have some guilt and anxiety around my daily medications.  They are tested on animals.  I sometimes agonize over this. I see that I am not separate from any other being. We are all suffering together and there is no formula for ‘doing the right thing’ I can follow here.  I take these medicines to keep myself disease free and healthy so that I may work and contribute my time and resources to causes that help people and animals.  I’m not a bodhisattva, but I take comfort knowing that as humans, there are times we may choose to break a precept because we believe there is a ‘greater good’ to be attained.

Another area of killing I’ve reflected on this month is around virtual relationships.  Since moving to NYC, I use Facebook to stay in contact with friends and family.  I notice that since these relationships have transferred from the physical realm to the mental realm, my anxiety and tendency towards negative thoughts has increased.   I miss these people, and it seems like they’ve carried on with life just fine without me.  Who knew that they didn’t need me to live full and happy lives?!  My poor ego is wounded.  Instead of just reaching out, being vulnerable and saying “I miss you guys, let’s make time to talk”, I indulge in provocative posts and comments designed to solicit attention, even negative attention.  This pattern of seeking attention and validation, even if negative, is an old one rooted in childhood.  In Getting Unstuck, Pema Chodron speaks of shenpa, the “hook” or “urge” to indulge in unskillful habits.  I feel myself turning towards this shenpa, going to poison for comfort.  Am I not killing these relationships by engaging in behaviour that is essentially unkind, both to myself and to them?

When I moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I met two homeless men in my neighbourhood, and there are rich lessons for me in these relationships.  In my eagerness to “help them”, I have been challenged to reflect on what “helping them” really means.  For example, I agreed to call the hospital for some info for AR.  When I got it, I was so eager to tell him that I walked up to him sitting in his wheelchair and just blurted it out.  I failed to notice that he had, in fact, been asleep.  Instead of the grateful reception I was anticipating, he berated me for waking him up. I went through such a range of emotions. I walked away feeling guilty and embarrassed at my lack of mindfulness. Great lesson! Just because AR lives on the streets, doesn’t mean he deserves less common courtesy.  It may not be convenient for me to come back another time, but shouldn’t I have noticed he was sleeping and thought maybe he needs sleep right now more than the info I’m so keen to give him?  I need to look, notice and be mindful when approaching someone. Gauge whether they are ready to receive me.  And if I make a mistake, be humble, apologize and keep on trying.

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Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels: Fay

threeJewelsGemstones-web

So far we’ve heard from Gary and Liesl on what the three jewels mean to them. Let’s continue to get to know the sangha, this time with Fay:

What does ‘taking refuge in the Buddha’ mean to you personally?
Like taking a visit to a friend, though that friend happens to be the wisest part of myself, who can look deep within me and make me feel loved and purposeful. Oh and that friend has a sense of humor too, so I can laugh at my folly and forgive myself.

What does ‘taking refuge in the Dharma’ mean to you personally?
Daily meditation and living my life with the principles of no-harm and compassion for all living beings. This includes developing my work, to help guide those in my class room and rehearsal with wisdom , and patience. Reading books such as these help me stay on that path; The Anatomy of Change and The Art of Somatic Coaching (Richard Strozzi-Heckler), The Places that Scare You (Pema Chodron), and New Self-New World (Philip Shepherd).

What does ‘taking refuge in the Sangha’ mean to you personally?
It means making time to sit in meditation with a group of like-minded people, in order to strengthen my practice and understanding about the 8 fold path towards Enlightenment. It means making a call when I feel lonely, and being available when someone reaches out.

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Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels: Liesl

Three Jewels_Gemstones

 Last week with started the theme of getting to know the sangha by hearing the answers different sangha members give to questions about what the three jewels mean to them. Now we’ll continue with Liesl’s answers.

bouddha_1What does ‘taking refuge in the Buddha’ mean to you personally?

Any image of the Buddha is so peaceful and comforting to me, and given the popularity of this image in the west, I am afforded many opportunities to take refuge in the peace of his image daily. The statue on my personal shrine is a way for me to visually connect with my intention to wake up. I spend a minute or two before I start meditating, just looking at his calm face, his relaxed and confident posture, and I can connect with those qualities in myself.

What does ‘taking refuge in the Dharma’ mean to you personally?

There are many suttas and lists I’ve been exposed to since becoming a Buddhist, and they are all meaningful to me. The eightfold path and the four reminders are two teachings that I really find helpful. When I find myself suffering, which is daily, I can bring these to mind and know that this human life is precious and there is a path out of suffering if I choose to take it.

What does ‘taking refuge in the Sangha’ mean to you personally?

The sangha is the jewel I take refuge in most tangibly at this time in my life. Moving to a new city that fortunately has a Triratna Buddhist community is a huge comfort and support. Sangha night, when we meet as a community to meditate and discuss the dharma is a highlight in my week. And I’ve made connections with some sangha members and we meet up on other days too. It’s like having an instant family of like-minded people.

Thank you, Liesl!

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Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels: Gary

Three Jewels[image] I recently got together with one of my sangha mates for a social visit, outside of the sangha, on the Upper West Side, for a snack-and-chat. (We’d intended to walk in Riverside Park, but it was a particularly sweltering day, so we opted to stay in the AC.) We caught up on various things in our personal lives, but since we share an interest in Buddhism and its expression in the Triratna-NYC sangha, we naturally discussed that. At some point he asked me a really interesting question, “What does taking refuge in the three jewels mean to you?”

It’s a great question, and really basic to Buddhism. The three jewels of Buddhism are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is, well, the Buddha. The image of a compassionate being, the example of enlightenment, the embodiment of the goal of ‘waking up.’ Not a god, just a person who some 2500 years ago achieved something that all Buddhists aspire to achieve. The Dharma is the path and the teaching, either his or others’, that lead to compassion, enlightenment, seeing the truth of reality, figuring out a way to live in a world that is marked by suffering (along with happiness) and impermanence and loss. The Sangha is the community of others on the same path, in their different ways, toward that goal. It may be the small group of people you see regularly and meditate with, discuss the Dharma with, and hang out in Riverside Park with. And it is also the worldwide community of Buddhists who are on the same path.

When someone becomes a Buddhist, one of the things they do is to ‘take refuge in the three jewels.’ This is not an à la carte proposition. There’s a formula, a fixed and traditional meaning. But there’s a lot of room for interpretation in it. What exactly does the example or image of the Buddha mean to an individual? What type of relationship to the Dharma does an individual have? How do they experience and access it? What does the person consider to be the Dharma? Is it just the Pali canon, or is it more expansive, with other Buddhist traditions or even art, poetry, nature, or quantum physics? What is the Sangha? Is it a small group of people you see regularly? Is it a sense of a global community of people you don’t know personally? Or can the Sangha be an ad-hoc group that you suddenly see as instrumental in your personal spiritual path?

I thought about that great question and answered, and the idea also came to me that this would be really good material for this blog. Rather than sharing my answers, which I suppose I’ll do at some point (and sort-of have above), I emailed several of my sangha mates and asked them the same question. This is the first installment of answers. This first post comes from Gary. Others will follow.

What does ‘taking refuge in the Buddha’ mean to you personally?
Consideration and emulation. Holding the key characteristics of the Buddha in my mind, and using them to influence my own actions. Acknowledging that the Buddha found/rediscovered something powerful, a positive way to approach the universe and the human condition, and striving to live by his example.

What does ‘taking refuge in the Dharma’ mean to you personally?
Making study of all sorts an integrated and daily part of my practice. This can run the gamut, from books by Sangharakshita to books on meditation, mindfulness, non-violent communication, and other topics by John Kabat-Zinn, Marshall Rosenberg, Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hahn, Eugene Gendlin, and many others. It may also include listening to talks on FreeBuddhistAudio, and even Krista Tippet’s On Being Podcast.

What does ‘taking refuge in the Sangha’ mean to you personally?
Acknowledging that the community is a powerful and critical component in my practice. The support and acknowledgement I get from my Sangha-mates nurtures and sustains me. Knowing my community is out there, even when I can’t make it to Sangha night, helps me to maintain my commitment to practice. The love I feel from my Sangha mates just feels right.

Thank you, Gary, for sharing!

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Right Speech: The Apology

Buddha_KeyboardDuring one of the first meetings of the introductory course that I took with Triratna, one of the more experienced sangha members, someone who is “going for refuge” or asking for ordination, said something very profound that’s stuck with me ever since. We were discussing Buddhist ethics, in particular Right Speech, and she said that one thing she’d noticed since seriously practicing Buddhism is that she found herself apologizing a lot.

My initial interpretation was that she was doing more things that required apologies. Behaving poorly, creating discord, being rude, acting carelessly. All things that would call for an increase in apologies. You can imagine my confusion. If you’re following Buddhist ethics seriously, shouldn’t that lead to fewer instances of necessary apologies? What kind of Buddhist, or any ethical person, behaves in a way that requires a lot of apologies?

The answer, I’ve come to understand, is a normal Buddhist, and even one who is making progress on the path toward enlightenment. Apologies are difficult. Even when we’re wrong, and we know deep down that we’re wrong and owe someone an apology, it’s difficult to let go of ego and acknowledge: I was wrong. I was rude. I was a jerk. I am sorry. Letting go of that kind of ego is of course central to awakening in the Buddhist sense.

But the thing about apologies in a Buddhist sense, at least as I think I understand it, is that one can, and perhaps is even called to, apologize even when they’re not “wrong” but were a player in a situation that caused strife, anger, suffering. That’s a huge amount of ego-shedding. I don’t care if I was right or wrong, but I am sorry that there was a situation that created dukkha, suffering. The apology, I think, is a beautiful manifestation of Right Speech, speech that is honest, kind, and seeks to create harmony rather than discord.

I am writing this post on the morning after shooting off a nasty email. The details aren’t important. It’s not even important that it was late, I was in a cranky mood, and I committed the cardinal sin of hitting “send” before sleeping on it. I’m not entirely sure if I was totally or partially in the wrong in the situation that led to this email, but it really doesn’t matter. My speech (or email) was most definitely not Right.

So I sent a morning-after apology. I don’t know how it will be received, and I don’t know if the recipient will think, “gee, I was partly to blame in this.” But that doesn’t matter. The apology was liberating. It felt Right to say “I owe you an apology. I was rude, hostile, and aggressive, and you didn’t deserve that. I was wrong, and I am deeply sorry.”

I’m not sure if I would have done that if those words of my sangha mate weren’t echoing in my head. Maybe, but it’s equally possible that I would have clung to my ego and insisted that I was either entirely or at least partially in the right. Silly, toxic, unskillful thoughts. I hope my apology will lead to forgiveness, but I can’t control that. What I can control is my own behavior and speech (well, belatedly in this case!).

Being a Buddhist does lead to more apologies, to glimmers of non-ego where we’re not afraid to say “I was a jerk,” regardless of who else might or might not have been a jerk. And uttering those words is an absolute delight.

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Striking Out Into the Forest

forest2At a recent sangha night in Manhattan, we discussed the spiritual practice of renunciation, and what the Buddhist notion of ‘striking out into the forest’ means for each of us in the context of modern, Western Buddhism and our own lives. If a central theme of the path toward awakening is to renounce attachment, especially to worldly things, what exactly does that mean for people who have families, careers, non-Buddhist friends, a home, a mortgage, car payments? If we were to leave all of that behind, in particular the people who we love and who depend on us, wouldn’t that cause suffering for others, even if it might ultimately be to our spiritual benefit?

While I didn’t take a formal poll, I think it’s safe to say that most of us agreed that ‘striking out’ can be done in a less dramatic way. The forest can be a metaphor, a state of mind, where we feel the pull of attachment to an ever-decreasing degree. We can live our lives with our loved ones while cultivating a compassionate mindset that recognizes the impermanence of the things that we think define us and those around us. We can strive to perform our jobs more ethically, we can learn to ask ourselves more often how important, or even necessary, certain lifestyles or material possessions are. As we progress and live more and more according to the dharma, we may find that some things naturally and organically fall away – certain behaviors, certain career choices, even certain people.

We shared stories of some of the changes that occur as our priorities realign and we try to live more in accordance with the dharma. For some, things were dramatic. A sudden realization that a career path was not what we wanted, and in fact contrary to our values. Or a sudden clarity that we were unhappy in a relationship and needed to make a change.

But for most, the changes seemed to be more gradual, and less drastic. Getting angry on a crowded subway and having the entire morning ruined because some stranger was rude is a choice, and not a very rational or skillful one. Watching certain kinds of films or reading certain kinds of books or magazines is actually not entertaining, but instead brings negativity into our minds. Spending time with certain old friends actually keeps us in patterns of behavior that we’d be better off leaving behind. These kinds of realizations pave the way for new choices, new ways of reacting (or not!) to unpleasant situations, new forms of entertainment that are calming and inspirational, and stronger bonds with friends who nurture us and help us grow.

Of course, who knows what the future will bring and what our lives will look like as we continue along the path? Everything is impermanent after all, so our entire existence is one of change. But the kind of change that mindfulness asks of us isn’t always terribly dramatic. Maybe the forest that we’re striking out into is already all around us, and we’ve simply been focusing on the wrong trees.

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