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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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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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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Meditation Timers: Modern Gadgets Meet Mindfulness

At our Tuesday Sangha Nights we usually do things in a pretty traditional way. We salute the shrine, we chant the Refuges and Precepts, both in Pāli and in English, and then we sit to meditate. There’s a meditation leader, usually an order member or someone who’s asked for ordination, and he or she marks the beginning of the meditation and the start of each stage with a tingsha meditation bell, pictured here. The ambience is peaceful, with candles and incense, and a groupdragon tingsha of sangha members sitting on cushions in various postures, or on chairs, and soon enough the noise of the city fades away as we get into our meditations.

At home, a lot of us use more modern tools. There are several different timed meditations on the Triratna-NYC site, and you can simply play them from your computer to do a 20, 30, 40, or 60 minute Metta Bhavana or Mindfulness of Breathing.

And as with most things in life these days, there’s an app for that. My informal survey of our sangha has the Insight Timer as the clear favorite, but there are plenty of others. I’m in the Insight Timer camp myself, and I have several pre-programmed meditations of different lengths that I use. If you like a social media angle, you can make a profile of yourself, have ‘friends,’ join groups, send messages… all of that stuff. Personally I don’t use those features, but I can see the appeal if you want to have a kind of virtual sangha and see who, across the planet, you’ve just been meditating with.

insight timer

You can also keep a journal, adding notes on each time you sit – which meditation you did, what hindrances may have arisen, and so on. If you’re a lover of stats, you can see how your meditation practice has been going by the numbers – total number of days meditating, consecutive days, amount of time spent, etc. Of course you can ignore all of that, too, and just meditate.

The great thing about these timers is that you simply touch “start,” and then you don’t have to worry about keeping an eye on a clock or watch. Not that a clock or watch isn’t a perfectly suitable alternative if you prefer not to use a smart phone.

There are also links to several other meditation tools, including special clocks and timers of the physical, non-app variety, as well as CDs and MP3s. If you have other favorites that are not included, leave a comment and let us know.

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Change Your Mind by Paramananda

Change Your MindOne of the first books I read after coming to Triratna-NYC was Change Your Mind: A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation, by Paramananda. It was a wonderful resource as I started to practice meditation, with a simple and friendly tone, and clear instructions and advice on everything from cushions and posture to tips on how to bring the benefits of a Buddhist practice into your daily life. I’ve since recommended Change Your Mind to family and friends as an excellent introduction, or as an approachable tool to get back in the habit of regular practice.

Change Your Mind starts with the basics, answering the question What is meditation? and then moves to the essentials in an inviting and personal way. The author gives a thorough explanation of the importance of posture and the different postures a meditator may use. This was particularly helpful to me, since invariably my back knotted up, or my foot fell asleep, or my leg began to ache about five minutes into any meditation I started.

The first meditation covered is a simple body meditation, which helps new meditators become acquainted with their own physical presence as they sit. It’s a very accessible approach that helps beginners learn to focus on the now. Then the author covers the two traditional meditations we do at Triratna, the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana, or the cultivation of Loving-Kindness, with clear explanations as well as led practices. The author also discusses the role of intention and balanced effort in meditation, and the link between mental, emotional, and physical states and meditation, and how all of that is connected to how we (can) lead our lives.

While Change Your Mind does not focus on Buddhist philosophy, even basic points such as the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, there is an introduction to the brahmavihāras, or the Four Immeasurables, the compassionate virtues that arise from practice of the Metta Bhavana. This is written in the same friendly, down-to-earth style as the rest of the book, inviting practitioners to experience for themselves the link between meditation and living in a healthier, more compassionate way.

Finally, anyone who’s meditated is doubtlessly familiar with the Five Hindrances, which are also covered, along with time-tested methods for dealing with them and always coming home to the object of concentration. These tools are key to sustaining a practice, especially when you’ve reached a plateau, which most people experience.

All in all, Change Your Mind is a wonderful book to read if you’re a beginner, or if you’ve been meditating for a while but want to go back to the basics for a fresh, friendly, creative, and inspirational point of view. It is neither dry and mechanical nor full of Pali and Sanskrit terms for unfamiliar Buddhist philosophical concepts. It goes right for the middle path, and makes it easy for the reader to follow along.

-Chris

 

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