Mindfulness Lab:101

Blue Cliff from Crystal Sunshine Porch

Blue Cliff Monastery, Photo by Celia 

“Spiritual practice is not just sitting and meditating. Practice is looking, thinking, touching, drinking, eating, and talking. Every act, every breath, and every step can be practice and can help us to become more ourselves.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“Mindfulness is not difficult; we just need to remember to do it.” ~ Sharon Salzberg

“What are you using that time for? Are you using your time to worry or using your time to live?” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear friends,

It’s not hard to love people when they’re silent.  On silent retreats, especially those with extended periods of quiet and intensive meditation practice, I can send metta and imagine my fellow retreatants in perfect health. I can wish they have no sorrow and their lives be filled with joy. Fast forward to the end of the retreat and my dedicated practice of openhearted friendliness and wishing the best for others can come to a screeching halt when they open their mouths. Even after deep realizations about our interconnectedness, our non-self nature and how we are caught in habit patterns, all these valuable and worthy insights seem to evaporate when we are faced with folks behaving the way they sometimes do. All our insights and wisdom are put to the test in relationship, in working and living with others who may say or do the wrong thing. Showing up as a part-time Buddha in our real life is what we are practicing for.

A week ago, I was on staff at the For a Future to be Possible retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery. What is both wonderful and challenging about Blue Cliff is that it’s a place where we are embodying the Dharma in a relational way. It’s a sort of mindfulness lab where we can experience mindful living in community. We practice mindful working, eating, communicating, and even being a mindful roommate. For this retreat, I came with the expectation of encountering confusion and clarity, moments of disconnection and community, and times when folks liked what I did when they didn’t—and I wasn’t disappointed. I met all of that and more.

In life and on retreat we encounter the Eight Worldly Winds or vicissitudes that blow through life. The Buddha was the ultimate systems analysist. He saw all life as functioning in conjunction with the concert of wholeness and that our perception is a small fragmented piece of what is truly arising. In the Lokavipatti Sutta, AN 8:6, the Buddha described a way to understand our experience of being in relationship with others and ourselves using the teaching of the Eight Worldly Winds. They are a codified example of the moving and fluid nature of our perception—and a reminder that our experience is not as personal as we think. The Worldly Winds are presented as pairs, with one aspect being something desirable and pleasant, and the other—not so much: they are gain and loss, status and disgrace, praise and blame, pleasure and pain.

Great Togetherness Hall

You may have shared this experience of encountering one email praising us for something we’ve done and another letting us know that the exact same thing did not meet another’s needs—both on the same day. Because of the ingrained negativity bias in humans, we may find the email not liking what we did, sticks in our minds. It’s easy to run past the praise, dismissing it as coming from someone who’s easy to please, or that what we’ve done isn’t really that great—and we may find it easy to focus on criticism and get caught analyzing how we have missed the mark for the other person.

The negativity bias is part of our biological evolutionary strategy and was a useful tool for our ancestors who needed to be aware of the poison berries, the snake that bites, the warlike tribe or person who threatens our lives. We humans got very adept as distinguishing threat and avoiding it to protect our gene line and this biological evolutionary adaptation is still in play today. Although most of us don’t have to focus on which roots are edible and which will kill us, we, as a species, still give priority attention to what harms us and makes life dangerous.

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D. tells us that in relationship we store up the bad and skip over the good—so much so, that it takes five positive interactions to diminish the sting of one negative encounter. We are so sensitized to criticism that we as a species tend to overestimate threat and interpret another person’s disapproval as dangerous and threatening. We can get very tight and defended when we encounter the downside of the Worldly Winds. What can help to keep us in an open relational state are two things. The first is to recognize that in moments when we are not hearing the acknowledgment or acceptance we are longing, that this is our turn at experiencing disapproval. We can remind ourselves that we also experience praise and that both these shifting winds are temporary, inconsistent, and depend upon conditions. The second way to practice is to bring our own care and compassion into this experience and to let ourselves be fully present without pushing away this feeling of sadness, disappointment, or hurt. We can look deeply at our instrument of emotion—our body—noting where this experience directly in the body. What does it feel like to be blamed? Where does it live in the body—in the flushed cheeks, the constricted throat, the burning of adrenalin in the hands? Can we stay with the sensations as they too shift and live out the life of this impermanent emotion?

A young nun on the retreat shared her experience with anger with me and a group of teens. She said she was aware when she was hurt and angry there was the desire to hurt the other person as much as they had hurt her. When we look at the range of experience we have in life, the hurt can take on a different meaning. It can be the portal to the way we practice with this condition in the world—the condition of blame or bad reputation. Doing our best to live in accordance with the Dharma involves actively working to reconcile and address these hurts and miscommunications as they occur. It takes bravery and vulnerability to stop continuing in the same pattern of aversion and distancing. Seeing these moments as part of this greater system of life can allow us to see these painful experiences not as torture and grounds for war, but as practice opportunities.

Lotus pond

When I find myself tossed about by the changing winds, I remind myself, oh, this is what blame feels like. It doesn’t feel good—and I can be present for this too. I care about this feeling. The simple joy of fearlessly feeling what we feel can be a surprising balm for the painful side of the Worldly Winds. And moment after moment, we learn to trust that we can befriend ourselves through both gentle breezes and the wildest storms.

May we all trust our light,


The country of the present moment

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh



The Guardian of Myself

Venerable and friends

Venerable and friends, Bantam, CT. Photo by Celia

“Strive at first to meditate

Upon the sameness of yourself and others.

In joy and sorrow, all are equal.

Thus be guardian of all, as of yourself.”

~Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva

Dear Friends,

I was saddened—to see my former classmate and mindfulness colleague on the news this week. He’s the Police Chief in Dayton, Ohio and when he’s on television it means there’s a tragedy—and according to the New York Times, the Dayton shooting was the 32nd mass shooting this year. As I watched the reports of the three major shootings this week and read the news, I felt an overwhelming weight of pain and collective suffering. I remembered what contemplative neuroscientist researcher Tonia Singer said in her Ted talk, “watching suffering, [ie.] the news, activates the limbic system.” The limbic system is the emotional enter of the brain responsible for the sympathetic nervous system and the fight or flight response to stimuli. It is also activated by trauma and watching the news can give us vicarious or secondary trauma from contact with images and accounts of violence and hostility.

We are processing and receiving information all the time and we unconsciously take on the emotional state of others. 

Researchers compare the activity of the brain between those who are suffering and those who are witnessing the pain. In fMRI scans display the activation of the insula, the locus of the pain activates when we witness someone who is suffering. Contemplative neuroscientist, Tonia Singer tells us that this emotional response is “unconscious, the insula fires in a millisecond—we are processing every second of our lives. We unconsciously go into emotional resonance of others.” This is the emotional resonance of empathy, or the ability to understand what another is feeling. This feeling of pain and despair is part of the response of empathetic contagion. In the face of so much collective suffering and loss, we can be thrown off-center and become paralyzed and powerless in the face of hatred and destruction.

Neuroscience researchers Tonia Singer and Olga Klimenki wanted to study the different qualities of empathetic contagion and compassion. Using distressing film footage from the BBC news, they found that participants who focused on the pain of those they viewed reported negative feelings of hopelessness, despair, and depression, agitation, and frustration, while those who trained in compassion, the wish that suffering is relieved, experienced feelings of solidity, of reward, and even happiness faced with the same news that others found so distressing.

Neuroscience learned from monks who individually have over 40,000 practice hours of compassion meditation, that encountering suffering, these monks fully comprehend the pain of the other and shift into the practice of compassion. The neural circuitry of compassion activates the body’s own powerful analgesic system connected to oxytocin and opiate production for relieving pain. The monks practicing compassion reported feelings “positive affiliation, love, reward, of concern, strength and warm feeling” according to Singer.

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that “compassion is a verb.” Compassion is the desire to remove suffering and the impetus to do so. Compassion is doing something.

Lilly padIn loving kindness meditation, there is the intention to transform suffering. This intention is an action. Neuroscience shows us the dramatic shift that can arise from changing our thought pattern. Using fMRI technology, the intention for others to be well and happy completely shifted the neural connectivity and the emotional state of the practitioner.

When we are steady and balanced in our lives, we are capable of meeting the suffering of others. In neuroscience this is called the caring affiliative system—Singer explains the importance of this system in bringing about the end of suffering in oneself and another, “If a child cries, the mother cries, you know the child will cry even more. This caring affiliation system what it does naturally is soothing the child, getting calm and pouring out this concern and love.” Research demonstrates that the same person who experienced empathetic distress at another’s pain, and experienced suffering and distress could activate the care and affiliation circuitry after compassion training. The evidence is very clear, and Singer acknowledges, “We need compassion—which is the system of affiliation and love—the positive feeling of strength and concern for others.”  This shift in our mind creates resilience and the ability to transform our own suffering and when we can show up with a calm and balanced presence, we have much more capability for wise and sustained action.

This week my compassion prayer is, May I not close my heart to my suffering. May I not close my heart to your suffering. This is how it is right now–for both of us. May I remain balanced and at ease in the middle of things. May you find peace in the midst of this and may all of us realize the end of suffering.

May we all trust our light,


You are enough

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh