Making Myself a Safe Home

heart shaped hole

Heart-shaped hole. Photo by Barbara Richardson

 

“Whatever’s not full makes noise. Whatever is full is quiet.”  ~The Buddha

“A mind unruffled by the vagaries of fortune, from sorrow freed, from defilements cleansed, from fear liberated — this is the greatest blessing.” ~The Buddha (Mangala Sutta).

“There are beautiful trees within the island. There are clear streams of water. There are birds, sunshine and fresh air. Breathing out I feel safe. I enjoy going back to my island.” ~ The Island of the Self, Plum Village Song

Dear Friends,

I recall on the last day of a retreat, during questions and answers at Blue Cliff Monastery, a young boy asked Thich Nhat Hanh how he calms his mind. Thây replied the easiest way to calm the mind is to calm the body. We have ample evidence that the body and mind are not separate entities. When we have tension in the body, the mind is also tense. When we have tension in the mind, the body follows suit and gets tight. This sends the clear message to the mind that there is a real threat and signals the release of stress hormones, cortisol, and epinephrine, which lead to more stress and agitation. This cycle of reciprocal arousal is called a stress loop and the constant state of vigilance and heightened fear response can lead to increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and heightened blood sugar. If the body does not calm and slow the production of stress hormones, over time, this may lead to adrenal fatigue, exhaustion, restless sleep, heart disease, and a depleted immune system function.

Representations-of-mind-body-response-during-stress-and-meditation-The-figure (1)

(Figure and figure description reproduced with permission from copyright holder. Figure by Michael Jensen MSMI, CMI).

The body will not calm, or relax when it is guarded and vigilant. The body will not relax until it knows that it is safe to do so. Typically, when we travel, we don’t sleep well in a strange and new place. Even though the body is asleep, there is vigilance that keeps us from letting go into deep rest. We do not give ourselves permission to fully relax until we understand on an experiential and somatic level that we are safe.

Safety is an essential part of concentration. Children who live with trauma and violence cannot focus due to hypervigilance and constant scanning. Every Sunday, for the past six months, I’ve led guided relaxation and body scans for teenagers undergoing treatment in a rehabilitation facility. These young people are in treatment for anxiety, depression, addiction, self-harm, and other manifestations of suffering. What I do is invite them to relax. I am transparent about the role of safety. I let them know that feeling safe is the basis of relaxation and rest. I explain that being safe or the feeling of safety might be strange to them—and for most of us—we walk around with lots of armor and protection. I invite them to be curious about what leads to this feeling of safety and what actually happens when the body recognizes that it’s ok to feel safe. Simply by voicing the permission to be safe and care for themselves, most of these teens are able to relax, some of them for the first time in their lives. They learn that it’s not the room, the sound of my voice, or a special bell that gives them the feeling of relaxation—it is their own ability to believe they are safe. Their relaxation is made from their willingness to let go of vigilance and to know the peace of safety.

The body is the first of the four foundations of mindfulness. The Buddha recommending calming the body to create concentration. In the Bhikkhunivasako Sutta, the Buddha is recorded giving directions for establishing the foundations of mindfulness that lead to concentration to the Venerable Ananda, “With body so calmed down, he experiences joy. Being joyful, his mind is concentrated.” The ability to concentrate is only available when there is peace in the body—which is a source of joy, leading to a greater ability to release our thinking and planning and to concentrate the mind.

It is especially difficult for those who do work with threating situations to practice relaxation of the body. Firefighter, police, first responders, medics, and soldiers are all at risk for heightened levels of adrenal arousal and exhaustion from sustained stress. While vigilance is natural and has succeeded in protecting our gene line and ensuring the survival of the species, we may want to experiment with the idea of safety to bring more ease, joy, and concentration into our lives.

One of the best ways to bring more relaxation into our lives is to consciously give permission to experience safety and relaxation for a specific period of time. Taking five minutes, find a place where you can consciously know safety and attend bodily feelings. Is there a sense of expansion, of heaviness, or lightness? How is the body when we let it know it is safe? Is there some happiness and delight in this feeling? As we become more practiced with the somatic sense of safety, we may find that relaxation and ease in the body naturally become more accessible—it is like knowing the taste of salt, we can identify when it is present and when it’s missing. We can add a sense of safety and relaxation into our daily tasks; how safe and relaxed can I feel washing dishes, eating, or driving?

The words, “you are safe,” are wonderful to hear and even better to believe. Do we have a place and a time when we can let ourselves know this? Looking at how we want to be calm, centered, peaceful, approachable—and physically and emotional safe—how much of our protection gets in the way of what we want? How much of our guarding robs us of the ability to feel kindness and care for ourselves and others? We can use our wisdom to guide us and recognize that there are situations in our lives that require vigilance. We don’t want to be so relaxed we miss the cues that our body gives us about danger and warning. If we are living with violence or work with those who have little physical and emotional regulation, it’s wise to trust the body and mind’s natural protection system.

If we experience physical and emotional threat in our life and work, we will need to bring more attention to consciously creating opportunities to experience safety. If we do not learn how to bring this quality into our lives, we will lose our ability to feel safe and relaxed. We will be distracted and ill at ease and never know the peace of true homecoming. When we learn to entrust ourselves into our own wisdom and love, we create a good home for ourselves where we can rest, knowing we have permission to be safe, to relax our body and touch the stillness that brings joy.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Relax your body

 

Beyond hope lies wisdom and love

“If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. But that is the most that hope can do for us – to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic. Since we cling to our hope in the future, we do not focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment. We use hope to believe something better will happen in the future, that we will arrive at peace, or the Kingdom of God. Hope becomes a kind of obstacle. If you can refrain from hoping, you can bring yourself entirely into the present moment and discover the joy that is already here.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Dear Friends,

Some of you may have noticed that while the characteristics of faith, trust, and impermanence all have a starring role in the Buddhist lexicon, the word hope is conspicuously absent. What is it about hope that makes it an outlier attribute? Why didn’t the Buddha prescribe a practice of hope for his followers?

I looked up hope and Miriam Webster’s describes it as “desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment,” ahh—there’s the rub—the expectation of fulfillment. As Thich Nhat Hanh points out, hope can be an obstacle when it prevents us from accepting what is. Hope can have us leaning into the future where we believe things will be better, we, or our loved ones, will be healed, or different. The reason that this word hope is so tricky is held in our motivation to act. What happens if this is as good as it gets—or if things get worse? What happens to our willingness to try when we see our dreams smashed against the rocks of reality again and again? Maybe there is something that has the power to motivate, the way hope does but without pinning our wellbeing on the accomplishment of our goal?

In the common usage of hope, we link hope with optimism and agency. Agency is the belief that our actions are meaningful and have an impact on our lives. In the Psychology of Hope Theory, “Hope is defined as the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways” (Snyder, 2012). This definition is synonymous with taking action to create desired change, not contingent upon the success of those actions. In everyday speech when someone is without hope, we think of a pessimistic, depressed person, too despairing to make any effort to change a situation.

ArchwayIn Buddhism, there is the inherent understanding that all actions (kamma/karma) have unescapable meaning and consequence. Thoughts leading to action or inaction have meaning as well. We also understand that because of impermanence, we have the opportunity to create constant change. There is also the support of an ethical framework (sila) that gives us the foundation to take action with kindness and concern for the wellbeing of ourselves and others. Through the wisdom of mindful awareness, we learn what thoughts, words, and deeds lead to our happiness and which do not.

Forest monk and translator, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2010) describes the unfolding events in our lives as “[T]ools for Awakening. With every moment we’re supplied with raw materials — some of them attractive, some of them not. Instead of embracing them in delight or throwing them away in disgust, we can learn how to use them to produce the keys that will unlock our prison doors.” The ability to see that all events as opportunities supplies us with an unending source of hope for our happiness and the happiness of others. This understanding embraces the everyday view of hope with the wisdom and guidance of the highest qualities of the mind, the Brahmaviharas.

We cultivate these heart qualities first in our own being. As they mature, they pervade our life and spread to each situation and life we encounter. They include the desire to bring universal friendliness (metta/maître), compassion, (karuna), the wish to relieve the suffering of all beings including ourselves, and the willingness to be happy at the good fortune of others (mudita) without jealousy or envy. The special sauce in the assemblage of the brahmaviharas is equanimity (upekkha), the wisdom which understands that it is possible to love and care without making it contingent upon success and having things change the way we would like them to. Equanimity gives us the ability to extend our compassion despite our intention of kindness being misinterpreted, unwelcomed, or discounted, despite the illness which does not improve, or the diagnosis staying the same.

When we come from this openhearted intention to bring about change to benefit all beings, we do not tether our motivation on success. True compassion and love know that in disappointment, these qualities are more necessary than ever. We can understand that disappointment and discouragement are critical arenas for engaging unflagging love, patience, equanimity, and above all compassion for the very feelings of failure or discouragement. If these feelings are not met with this response, they can become the ballast that destroys all our agency and willingness to try. When we can meet disappointment with wisdom and love, we transcend hope. This is the motivation that goes beyond beginnings and endings, beyond life and death. With love and wisdom, there is no question that there is the willingness to try, to try, and to try again.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

we are already what we want to become

References:

Thanissaro, B. (2010, June 5). All about change. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition) Webpage. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/change.html.

Snyder, C. R. (2002) Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 249-275. DOI: 10.1207/S15327965PLI1304_01

 

A compassionate society is created through compassionate action

Rainbow Cloud

Rainbow cloud, Oregon. Photo by Celia

“By protecting oneself (e.g., morally), one protects others; by protecting others, one protects oneself.” ~ Samyutta Nikaya (Kindred Sayings) 47; Satipatthana Samy., No. 19

“We may recognize an oppressor and resolutely act to remove the oppression, but we do not hate him. Absence of hatred, disgust, intolerance or righteous indignation within us is itself a part of our growth towards enlightenment.”

~R.H. Blythe

“Buddhism teaches that joy and happiness arise from letting go. Please sit down and take an inventory of your life. There are things you’ve been hanging on to that really are not useful and deprive you of your freedom. Find the courage to let them go.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

We are so lucky that we live at a time when there has never been more Dharma available and more sangha participants than at any other period in the history of the world. As sangha members, we can directly receive the gifts of practicing in community and connection. The sangha offers us support for navigating these lifetimes of 10,000 joys and sorrows. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that the sangha is a raft to keep us from drowning in despair. In Buddhism, there is the practice of taking refuge in the three jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the sangha. When we take refuge, we come for support to the wisdom of the Buddha, the path of practice and the living tradition of the Dharma, and the Sangha, the companionship of others who share their wisdom, empathy, and the experience of valuing liberation above the societal ideals of wealth and status.

The Buddha created a community based on cooperation and the equality of all people. He included those who were devalued by the rigorous system of discrimination which was part of the ancient Aryan social strata. The Buddha’s model of living and social harmony includes the foundations of loving kindness and the understanding that we are more alike than different. As we navigate through this period of visible tensions between classes, economic levels, and races, we can recognize that we have a choice to build a new system which diverges from the current culture of hierarchy. We can make profound changes to shift towards an economy that cares instead of one that looks to exploit.

Chinese garden koi

Practicing living with the values of compassion and including all people in our circle of care is counterculture. It is easily mistaken for passivity or weakness to treat all beings, even those who are causing harm from ignorance, with consideration and friendliness.

We cannot build a compassionate society following the blueprint of domination and discrimination. We cannot conquer to create harmony and lasting peace. We know that all actions have value. The word karma in Sanskrit means action. Our karma includes all actions, our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. The words we do not speak, the thoughts no one can see, these are our possessions as well.

Opening to understanding and compassionate speech does not mean we approve or agree with the views of others. It means we consider that all living beings have a right to exist, have fears, and joys, and just like me, they will all experience pain and at some point, die. If I hold this awareness of how similar I am to another, I am moved to caring for their welfare. This is the open-hearted awareness of Bodhicitta, the awakened heart of love.

This can sound like an incentive to be nice, not rock the boat and stay far from the messy ignorance that manifestations as fear, hatred, and greed. We can pat ourselves on the back for silently wishing that all problems and injustices will go away and consider ourselves a good person because we care. But true caring is not just a platitude and arms reach altruism. Removing hatred and ignorance from our hearts asks us to look at where we are stuck in domination and injustice. Who do we believe is it ok to hate? Rapists, sexual offenders, racists, sexist, those who discriminate on the bases of sexual preference, or those who don’t see the enslavement of animals and the self-proclaimed supremacy of humans?

We are called to look carefully at our own bias, at how we fit into this culture of oppression. If we are a person of color, we are called to turn towards the truth of the devaluation of people with black or brown skin, at the lack of welcome and the daily reminders of difference, the micro-aggressions that exist in this society designed to favor white European immigrants. If we are a white person, we are called to see how we have benefited from the transfer of intergenerational wealth, how we take for granted the ability to choose where to live, what neighborhoods we can drive through without being stopped by the police, the privilege to freely select where we want to be educated, and what vocation we desire. As white people, we do not need to identify our race because we are the “norm.” We don’t call ourselves, European-Americans, or white Americans we are just Americans, while others carry the systemic distinction of separation and exclusion with titles of Asian America, African American, or Latinx American.

The path of purification leaves nothing out—not our implicit bias, or the ignorance that creates cultures of intolerance and discrimination. What we think, what we say, what we do has value and meaning. Out actions create the future and the seeds we sow, invariable bear fruit. When our actions flow from an awakened mind and heart that seeks to remove suffering our intention is vastly different than the mind that seeks to punish and defeat. The action may look the same—but the energy of care does not contain the seeds of violence and hatred. When we bring the spirit of compassion into all actions, political, as well as personal, there is a freedom born of non-harming. When there is no enemy outside of us, we are naturally free from fear and free to act because there is no residue of hate, only the mind that understands the causes of suffering and sees the way out is a collective achievement.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

wake up

It’s not you; it’s my vedana.

Columbia River Gorge, WA

Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Celia

“May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease.”

~John O’Donohue

“Freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves. It is a daily practice.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Desirable things do not provoke one’s mind. Towards the undesirable one has no aversion.” ~The Buddha. Connected Discourses, 1265, Bhodi trans.

 

Dear Friends,

I am back East from the great state of Oregon—Go Ducks! Travel is a wonderful way to notice our habits. When we lose our routines and possessions that insulate us, we often find ourselves anxious and fearful of what is coming our way. It can be humorous to look at all the ways we protect ourselves from the unwanted, all the ways we move and adjust our bodies, the temperature, and our surroundings to minimize discomfort. Dharma teacher Jack Kornfield (2013, 2016) notes that “It would be interesting to notice how many of our actions during the day—even small changes of posture—come about through an effort to avoid unpleasant feeling” (p.83). The unpleasant feelings are not usually the things we tell ourselves we are avoiding because we unconsciously equate pleasure and displeasure with what is outside ourselves. This is mistaking vedana (the second foundation of mindfulness) for the thing itself.

Vedana is sometimes translated as feeling, which can be confusing as the third foundation of mindfulness [cognition/objects of the mind] consists of the activities of the mind, including thoughts and emotional states. Former Forest monk, Buddhist psychotherapist, and meditation teacher Akincino Marc Weber has done extensive scholarly research on vedana. I’ve learned from him that vedana is never merely sensation or to be confused with emotion. Vedana is the quality of “hedonic feeling tone,” meaning that it contains that instant hit of liking, disliking. Even in the space called “neutral,” there exists a subtle flavor of pleasure and displeasure, too quiet to perceive. This is true even for enlightened beings, who still sense what is sweet and sour, but without the pull that drags us towards or away from.

Vedana is the awareness of the automatic like and dislike that comes from living in a body that has a built-in threat detection system. We see this easily with food. We are designed to like sugar, fat, and salt because those ingredients help us survive. Sugar and fat have the biggest caloric bang for our buck and salt is the essential mineral we need to sustain homeostasis. Most of us have very pleasant vedana when confronted with these tastes—and this is where it can get confusing—we believe that pleasure lives in the chocolate cake, or the bag of chips when it’s really pleasant vedana which comes and goes. The first potato chip tastes very different than the last as we finish off the family-sized bag and the chocolate cake isn’t at all appealing when we have a stomach virus.

Foodtruck, Portland

In the groovy city of Portland, OR, we visited pods of food trucks and I noticed how I was drawn to certain items, smells, physically pleasing images, and tastes I associated with pleasure.  I could sit back and watch the vedana show from all the six sense doors, sights, smells, sounds, the quality of touch, tastes, and the mind’s perception.

I saw my expectation shattered and the pleasant vedana I associated with an item shift abruptly when the tofu taco was watery, or the coffee was tepid. Instant dislike. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t reacting to the thing itself—I had slid into the third foundation of mindfulness [cognition] and was feeling disappointment. And I didn’t want to confuse my dislike and the disappointment with the actual thing.

A good example of confusing the thing for the vedana comes from the founder of Nonviolent Communication and admirer of Buddhist thought, Marshall Rosenberg, who uses the experience of waiting for someone who is late to demonstrate how we blame the external situation and other people for our own emotional state. We have all had the experience of waiting for someone and believing their lateness is the cause of our irritation. We can easily move into judgment and say they are inconsiderate. We can label them as chronically tardy. And my favorite pastime while waiting, to strategize how to never wait again, by being purposefully late in the future. When we confuse the unpleasant vedana for that specific person in that specific situation, we may say, I hate waiting, or I hate John. He’s so disrespectful. We don’t take responsibility for our own mental formations and emotions that are conditioned by our unpleasant vedana.

Marshall Rosenberg offers a second scenario. What if we are waiting for someone and it’s our first chance all day to rest—maybe we have been looking for an opportunity to check our email, or we just need a break. Or we are late ourselves and arrive fifteen minutes late. When our person shows up seventeen minutes late, we are actually glad they are so late. In this example, we see that lateness is not the cause of our anger. It’s our vedana and mental formations that create our happiness or unhappiness with the situation.

This week I invite you to look at the things you like and dislike—things you are drawn towards or move away from. What is the mental formation and vedana in that situation or thing that is pulling you? When we imbue something with a permanent fixed identity, we can be jerked around by the automatic response of vedana. Whenever we have a judgment, that is a good indication that we have mistaken vedana and our emotions for the thing itself and we are believing what we think

We can still have a favorite dessert—and it might taste even better when we let ourselves enjoy the experience of pleasant vedana, knowing that all vedana is fleeting and conditional. Practicing with vedana, we can get some clarity and use this awareness as information. Knowing our experience as it truly is, shows us the impermanent and constant flickering nature of pleasant and unpleasant. Recognizing the tireless pulse of liking and disliking for what it is can give us the clarity we need to choose our path instead of being dragged along by our senses.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

The way out is the way in

Reference:

Kornfield, J. (2013, 2016). Mindfulness: A practical guide to awakening. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.