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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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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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: 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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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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Practice To Go

 

 

travel shrineI recently got back from a two-week vacation, and I had really been determined to find time to meditate every day. The challenges were: quite a long (16 hours) flight in either direction, jet lag, staying in several different locations throughout the country I was visiting with different types of accommodations at each stop, traveling not just with my partner but also with another couple, and a good amount of travel within the country by plane and by car.

I’d guessed some of the challenges I’d face before I left, but I also found that I had to improvise as I went, which was a nice learning experience. I’m happy to report that I did manage to meditate every day, and I think these are the points that made this possible:

  • Be flexible with time. Grab a chunk of it whenever you can, and don’t be too fussy about whether it’s the same time every day, unless you’re really certain your schedule will allow you to live up to that. Since I was traveling with my partner, we figured out that the best time was when he was in the shower, so I had a bit of privacy in the main room. But some days I had to make time on planes, in cars, or in the evenings.
  • Be flexible about space and posture. Don’t be very demanding of the environment that you’ll meditate in. You may find yourself propping up pillows or blankets to simulate a meditation cushion, or simply sitting on the floor or against a bed or wall. Airplane seats are not the best place to do anything, let alone meditate, but even they can work.
  • Be forgiving of noise. You may be in a quiet hotel room, or you may be in a car or on a flight with that drone of machinery and conversation all around you. Noise-canceling headphones are helpful, and a white noise app as well, but you’re probably going to have to just roll with the noise at some point.
  • Get support from your travel companions. I found it helpful that my partner and friends knew that I wanted to go off and meditate at some point every day. They were very generous and understanding, and it helped me keep up my practice.
  • Be creative with your meditation. I was able to do my regular Mindfulness of Breathing and Metta Bhavana, but sometimes I found that a body scan was more suited to either the position I was in (packed into an airplane seat) or the noise level.
  • Be forgiving of duration. Don’t demand 30 or 40 minute meditations if that’s not realistic, or if it’s unfair to your partner/spouse/friends/travel companions, who may be tip-toeing around you, sealed off from their hotel room, or agreeing not to play the radio while you get in a quick Metta in the backseat of the van!
  • Accept that your food options may not always be terribly interesting. If vegetarianism is part of your practice, as it is mine, you may need to settle for rice, bread, beans, salads, and an array of grilled vegetables that are prepared by people who don’t really know how to prepare food for vegetarians, and may even look on you with a kind of perplexed pity when you explain that you don’t eat meat or fish. I found it helpful to have soy protein bars, almonds, and peanuts in my bag, especially when I was outside of the bigger cities of the meat-loving country that I visited. If you do eggs and cheese you’ll have an easier time, but it is possible to keep vegan if you’re well prepared, including psychologically!

If you really like to have a focal point for meditation, there are travel shrines available. I have one very similar to this, which has a small Buddha figurine, a candle, and incense burner and some incense. Of course not all hotels – not to mention airplanes – will appreciate your burning candles or incense. And of course you don’t need a travel shrine, or even a small Buddha figurine, or really anything at all. Just a little time, a little space, and you’ll be able to take your practice with you anywhere you go.

Chris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Mindfulness of Getting Ready

Buddha_Mindfulness of Getting Ready

Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.
The Bāhiya Sutta

As we’ve written here before, several members of the Triratna-NYC sangha have taken to making vows, and then offering encouragement to one another throughout the week. The very first vow we took was to meditate every day. I know… it seems kind of lame, because it’s something so basic to Buddhist practice, and yet life gets in the way, and before you know it a day has passed, and you haven’t made even ten minutes of space for meditation. I have to admit that I was a bit relieved to hear even “seasoned” Buddhists sharing this experience. It was such a common complaint, and so fundamental, that we made it our first vow. We kept an email thread up that first week, reporting in every day, sharing hurdles, making congratulations, and listing the unlikely places we found that we could make time and space for meditation. It was both inspirational and motivational, so we’ve kept the practice going.

Not too long ago I found myself in a situation where life had indeed gotten in the way, and this ongoing vow came to the rescue. Honestly without the images of my sangha mates in my head, I would have let the day pass by without even a few minutes of mindfulness, let alone meditation. The only problem was that I needed to be a little creative and bring mindfulness to my routine rather than stop my routine to sit and be mindful, because when it hit me that I hadn’t meditated, it was already too late for anything but, what was for me at least, a bit of improvisation.

I was getting ready to go out to an event for the evening, and it was going to be a late night. There was just no way I was going to be in any frame of mind to sit and meditate when I got home. I had just enough time to get myself together: I had to shower, I had to brush my teeth, I had to get dressed, I had to iron a shirt and polish my shoes. I had to do all of those things that we do so often and so mechanically that they’re probably the least mindful activities of our day. How present are we when we’re showering or brushing our teeth or buttoning a shirt? That’s when my mind is anywhere and everywhere but where my body is, and my thoughts are the most detached from what my senses are telling me. Nonetheless, necessity being the mother of invention, I had my meditation: The Mindfulness of Getting Ready.

Of course I’d read and heard many times, from many people, that just about anything can be a kind of meditation – walking, doing the dishes, cooking, even eating – as long as we do it with mindfulness, as long as we remain present in exactly that moment, as long as we observe our mind as it tries to go elsewhere and gently bring it back to take in the smells, textures, tastes, sights, and sounds of what we’re doing at that moment, and nothing more. As long as, as the Buddha advised Bāhiya, we don’t embellish our experiences with anything that isn’t really there.

I’d tried that before, but with things that seemed more special, more full of potential significance. Looking at a tree or flower, closing my eyes in a field and listening to the birds and insects, smelling the damp earth in the woods after a rainfall. Never with something so mundane as getting ready to go out.  But all of those mundane, mechanical experiences became something richer, and at the same time something simpler. Instead of careening through to-do lists or conjuring up anxieties, I stood in the shower and really felt the hot water fall onto my shoulders, trying to identify individual drops of water land and roll over my skin. Later I felt the texture of the towel as I dried off, and then tasted the toothpaste while I felt the bristles of the tooth brush. All of these small parts of my routine – the sound of the iron as it releases steam, the feel of a button between my fingers, the sheen of my (very rarely nicely polished) shoes – became much bigger. I was taking in sense input from just those ‘insignificant’ moments, and there was more than enough to occupy my mind, or to call it back when it drifted off into all of the other stuff that it usually occupies itself with. For a few minutes, I didn’t plan, I didn’t worry, I didn’t wallow in wrongs that have been done to me, I didn’t tweak recipes or compose emails or try to think of the name of that actor who did that one film way back when…

I’m trying to do this more often now. As simple as it sounds, it’s very difficult, not just to remember to do it, but to let go of the internal narrative and just let the external sensory input be what it is, nothing more. There’s definitely something special in being fully present in these small moments we take for granted, but what’s really special is what is not there – all of the baggage that we assail ourselves with, robbing ourselves of the simple pleasure of feeling hot water drum against our backs.

 

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Take a Vow

Buddha_Candle_VowA few weeks ago some of us in sangha were talking about vows. There were a lot of different ideas about their place and significance, from many angles – spiritual, psychological, physical, social – and one of the things we discussed was how a vow is different from, for example, a promise. We live in a society that involves a lot of promises, understandings, expectations, agreements and contracts – to pay the rent or mortgage, to drive (more or less) at the speed limit, to treat our friends a certain way, to reserve certain behavior for private spaces and adopt a whole range of other behaviors in public settings.

Of course none of that rises to the level of a vow. Even though there may be consequences, sometimes severe, for failing to act according to these promises, understandings, expectations, agreements, and contracts, there isn’t a sense of ‘sacred’ obligation. Even the Five Precepts, central to Buddhist ethical conduct, don’t start with the words “I vow to…” They start with “I undertake to…,” more of a very strong and solemn effort than a vow.

So what’s different about a vow? Of course we framed the question from the perspective of Buddhist practice, and we came up with something along these lines: a vow is something that you stake your sense of self and spiritual progress on, the “good” parts of ego that let us eventually get beyond ego; a vow is a promise you make to yourself and others that aims to push you further along the path of skillful practice. And the sangha is a great environment for the taking (and keeping) of vows.

Because a vow is a particularly serious commitment, it should not be made lightly. We shouldn’t make vows that we’re not fairly certain we’ll be able to keep, because the damage of breaking a vow can go far beyond paying a fine or making a sincere apology. It can set you back in your practice and progress. Within the context of a sangha, we can discuss our fears and level of readiness, and ask for honest and heartfelt feedback. Someone suggested that a vow should follow a “dry run,” a defined period of time when you make every effort to behave according to the vow you’ll take, before actually taking that vow. And of course the sangha can play a key role here, as well, whether it’s simply reporting in and sharing how we’re doing, or asking for help, advice, and encouragement. In this sense the sangha offers both a support system as well as some gentle accountability.

Triratna places great emphasis on the sangha jewel and the idea of spiritual friends, the community that a sangha is: a group of people who grow to know one another, to trust one another, to learn from and to teach one another, to be honest with one another, even if it’s uncomfortable. So a few of us have really taken to this idea of making vows – even simple ones – to one another at sangha night, and then checking in during the week to offer encouragement. The vows themselves are certainly helping us along with our individual spiritual practice, but something else is happening as well. The sangha is becoming closer, more creative and nurturing, more of what a sangha can be. It wasn’t the initial aim at the beginning, but it certainly is a happy benefit!

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Everything Changes: The Four Reminders

Tibetan-Buddhism-Wheel-Of-Life-07-00-12-Links-Of-Dependent-ArisingEvery human being knows that change is an absolutely inevitable part of existence. Every aspect of our lives is in a constant state of change – how we feel, whether we’re in good or poor health, what our physical environment is like, and which of our loved ones are with us. And of course every human being knows that, from our subjective vantage point at least, the ultimate change awaits us all; someday we ourselves will die.

This emphasis on impermanence leads many people to think of Buddhism as a dreary way of thinking, with that whole ‘life is suffering’ thing. (It’s actually more along the lines of “suffering exists.”) If that were all there is to Buddhism, that might even be an accurate portrayal. Of course it’s not all there is to Buddhism. As much as anyone else, Buddhists recognize that life is full of joy, full of opportunities for laughter, love, compassion, kindness, and generosity.

But no one, Buddhist or not, can deny that life is also full of suffering, precisely because we live in a state of impermanence. You would have to be truly delusional to deny that you will face the loss of people and things you hold dear, that you will be sick, that you will grow old, and that ultimately you will die. We even now know that impermanence isn’t just part of the human condition, but rather part of the entire workings of the cosmos. Continents shift, mountains rise and are eroded, species come about and disappear, stars burn through their nuclear fuel and die out. Literally everything you look at, for as far as you could see with the most powerful telescope, is in a constant state of motion and impermanence. If there is anything you could point to and label permanent, it would be impermanence!

Faced with this reality, we have two choices. We can live our lives in a state of denial, and set ourselves up for more suffering when the veil inevitably falls, or embrace it, and figure out a way to live and enjoy life despite the seemingly cruel truths of this universe that we’ve been born into. Buddhism is a system that embraces the latter, and offers tools to be brutally honest with ourselves about our state of being while still embracing the laughter, love, compassion, kindness, and generosity that are all very much possible, even critical, in a universe of impermanence.

In our sangha we recently completed a four week study and discussion of the Four Reminders. Also called The Four Mind-Changers, these are reflections that are meant to wake us up, to jolt us into recognition, not just intellectually but also emotionally, of the facts of life that are difficult for us to hold onto in our everyday lives. In a very pared-down nutshell:

  • The first is that, as human beings with the capacity for reflection and understanding, we can take advantage of our faculties to come to terms with impermanence. Simply by being alive, we have received a great gift, and a great opportunity.
  • The second is that we will die someday, and we don’t know when, so we should cherish the time and life we have, and use it to come to terms with our existence.
  • The third is that karma is real, that we live in a universe of cause and effect, both in our own thought patterns and in our external behavior. We can “life-hack” ourselves so that we create conditions for more skillful thoughts and actions.
  • The fourth is that samsara – the constant flux of existence – is “defective” if we view it through the typical human lens, which expects, even demands, permanence and constant happiness. The truth is we can’t make demands of the universe, and if we do, we’re only asking for more suffering.

There are traditional formulations of the Four Reminders, and traditional ways of thinking about and understanding karma and samsara, which probably would seem quite foreign to someone not brought up in Buddhist culture. In our sangha we’ve recently read Vishvapani’s modern, more accessible version of the reminders. They’re a great resource for people interested in a Buddhist thinking outside of the traditional cultural context in which they were first developed. Whether you take concepts like karma and samsara literally or metaphorically, the basic ideas of impermanence and cause and effect are hard to deny. From what might seem a dreary and depressing view of existence, there is the chance for a liberating change of heart and mind. All we have to do is be reminded.

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