Just Say No

Paper wasps

Paper wasps’ nest, photo by Celia

How very happily we live,

free from hostility

among those who are hostile.

Among hostile people,

free from hostility we dwell.

How very happily we live,

free from misery

among those who are miserable.

Among miserable people,

free from misery we dwell.

How very happily we live,

free from busyness

among those who are busy.

Among busy people,

free from busyness we dwell.

How very happily we live,

we who have nothing.

We will feed on rapture

like the Radiant gods.

 ~ Dhammapada:197-208

Sukhavagga: Happy

translated from the Pali by

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Dear Friends,

Thanksgiving is four days away and as I read these verses from the Dhammapada I wish that you too are able to find the happiness of being non-busy among busy people. I want to reflect on taking our time and more specifically being in charge of our time. Although we consider ourselves (sometimes with pride) as the busiest and most stressed generation in the history of the world, busyness is not a new thing. Time is a commodity that has always had value, even 2,500 years ago, the Buddha observed the pain of busyness. We don’t often acknowledge our relationship with busyness. For most people, there is a verbal push back and we decry how busy we are—but there is a hook in busyness. Despite the pain and discomfort, there is also reward.

We may believe being busy validates that we are worthy. Being busy means we have a role and meaning in our lives. Not being busy in a busy world means we unpopular, unwanted, and lazy. Those who prioritize creating space and time in their lives are rather suspicious in this frenetic world. Busyness may be a habit that feels comfortable. When there is no tension and time is vast and unscheduled, we may feel rootless and without direction. Being busy creates a pace and energy that can feel natural and despite wishing things were otherwise—we may not know how to be with ourselves when we have time and space.

We are entering the holiday season and it is characterized by busyness. For those of us with families, planning meals and celebrations, coordinating travel, gifts, and lodging, may all take their toll and turn this time of year into a heap of chores and resentments. For those of us who are longing to claim their time as their own, can we consider what would happen if we put down our tasks and prioritized ease? What would come crashing down? Who would we disappoint? Would we miss the chance to be someone in our own eyes or in the eyes of another?

Frozen water

Recently I was in a situation where I listened to the yes that was coming out of my mouth while I experienced a whole-body response of opposition and burden. The situation was not a big one, but I was reluctant to say no. It felt awkward and selfish, but I did. I said no. The no was scary. It meant I wasn’t that person who rearranged my life and put another person’s schedule above my own. The no was revolutionary because it helped me keep a heart of loving kindness. When we forget we have a choice about our commitments—even if our choice is to do more than we want because we want to keep our job, we already understand that we are free. When we work and live from a place of “have to,” and victimhood, we have lost connection with the element of choice that gives all life dignity.

In the Good Samaritan Study, research demonstrated that it is not one’s desires and intrinsic compassion, but the amount of hurry in our lives that determines if we are altruistic participants in life. This study is especially significant to demonstrate when we are rushing, we cut ourselves off from opportunities to respond with kindness.

Doing less, prioritizing our own wellbeing and spaciousness and commitment to practice gives us the basic ground of stability that allows us to touch our bodhicitta, the awakened heart we all possess. Freedom from busyness leads to gentleness. Freedom from hostility leads to consideration. Knowing we are sovereign over our time and our lives, restoring the sanctity of choice in our lives gives us agency, the sense that we matter. All this leads us to happiness.

When we slow down, we can listen to ourselves and stop the fragmented activity of the mind. Buddhist scholar and translator, Nyanaponika Thera (1994) writes: “Slowing down the hurried rhythm of life means that thoughts, feelings, and perceptions will be able to complete the entire length of their natural lifetime. Full awareness will extend up to their end phase: to their last vibrations and reverberations. Too often that end phase is cut off by an impatient grasping at new impressions, or by hurrying on to the next stage of a line of thought before the earlier one has been clearly comprehended.” We don’t realize that when we rush, we are training the mind to ignore the condition of the body and to ignore what the heart is longing for. We don’t have the time to listen to ourselves. We sacrifice our happiness for approval or compliance.

During this holiday week and the weeks ahead, I wonder what are we willing to let go of? What are we willing to renounce to give ourselves more space and ease? What aspect of doing can we release and along with it—perhaps the glossy image of ourselves as the superstar and achiever? Where can we be soft with our expectations and learn to forgive our undone and unfulfilled? Another aspect of this inquiry is to remember that even though we may feel helpless in the vortex of this mighty societal tide, we have a say in how we live. Instead of wondering how we are going to get it all done, putting our heads down and blindly pushing through until we can collapse in the New Year, we can remember that we are connected to all living beings on this planet and our welfare co-creates their welfare. Our happiness and suffering matters.

Instead of looking in from the outside and asking, “how am I doing?” we can flip the question and ask, “how is this for me?” Does doing this lead to ease and happiness for me and those around me? Does this activity connect me with my ability to love and support my deepest values? Can I work in a way that maintains my own dignity and supports the wellbeing of my body and mind or am I stretched thin? Could I love and accept myself if I said no? This week I challenge you in the words of Nancy Regan, to “Just say no.” Say no to taking on too much, to buying what no one needs, to being busy and small-hearted. In saying no to things that create smallness we say yes to what is infinite and available in our own stillness and solidity. We say yes to knowing our life in this moment instead of rushing past to get into that Door Buster Sale. Stay the course, slow down, take some breaths and remember that this moment is your life.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Stop Calligraphy

 

Giving and Receiving are One Action

Lichen

Forest floor, photo by Celia

“In Buddhism, we say there are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is to help people rely on themselves, to offer them the technology and know-how to stand on their own feet. Helping people with the Dharma so they can transform their fear, anger, and depression belongs to the second kind of gift. The third is the gift of non-fear. We are afraid of many things. We feel insecure, afraid of being alone, afraid of sickness and dying. To help people not be destroyed by their fears, we practice the third kind of gift-giving. If you can help people feel safe, less afraid of life, people, and death, you are practicing the third kind of gift.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh. For a Future to Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts

 

Dear Friends,

Several weekends ago, I attended a day of mindfulness where we examined the path of generosity, Dana Paramita. Giving has ancient roots in the Buddhist tradition. In Asia, monastics and teachers renounce their involvement in the world and can dedicate themselves entirely to meditation due to the generosity of the community and dana, the practice of generosity. Traditionally, Buddhist teachers give their teaching freely and for the benefit of the world which we share. In the milieu of capitalism and transactional giving, we are accustomed to getting and giving according to a balance sheet. We look for good deals and do not want to give—but always want to receive. This is seen as being savvy and a good businessperson, as someone who gains an advantage by paying less than another. To our Western sensibilities, the idea of perfecting our giving may seem foreign and even naïve, but what if we could see that there is no separation between the giver, the gift, and the receiver?

As a practitioner, I’ve heard this for a long time—and can understand it on an intellectual level as transcending the form of the gift and benefiting all involved, but I wanted to explore this idea more. Giving can seem limited to a time, person, season, linked to my own capacity to participate. I wanted to open my lens and see giving as greater than a time-specific donation or exchange.

Peeking Buddha

Zen teacher Norman Fischer (2014) writes  “A Zen practitioner about to eat a meal remembers that giving is life—that everything is giving, everything is given. There are no separate givers, receivers, or gifts. All of life is always giving and receiving at the same time.”  When I consider that giving is the same as the quality of attention and care, that it doesn’t begin and end, but can shift focus and move from an external to internal focus, I can begin to see the end of the belief in giving as just one moment, just one transaction. Buddhist scholar, Barbara O’Brien (2019) asks us to consider, “that there is no giving without receiving, and no givers without receivers. Therefore, giving and receiving arise together; one is not possible without the other.”

As I looked deeper, I could see that the giver cannot be left out of the gift. The Buddha described the experience of true generosity and joyful giving, “There is the case where the donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is bright & clear; and after giving is gratified. These are the three factors of the donor.” (AN 6.37, Dana Sutta: Giving, Thanissaro Bhikkhu trans.) This makes the intention of the giver joyful in the beginning, the middle and the end. In preparing to give either, my time, my money, my attention, a meal, or my assistance, I can ask “how is this for me right now?” Perhaps the most important aspect of the gift is checking in with ourselves and our intention. Have we given ourselves enough care to support this act of giving? If my gift is too big and leaves me exhausted, impoverished, and distressed—it did not consider me and is not true generosity. Looking at this process as a fluid expression of care—being able to offer a gift may feel like joy, instead of obligation.

As we head into the season of giving, I encourage you to look at how you are when giving. Does it feel dry and transactional, merely clicking the buy button on the Amazon wish list to fulfill an expectation? What would make the holidays feel more authentically connected to giving with non-attachment, without even expecting thanks? Years ago, I gave my time, money, and considerable effort to help someone who did not thank me. I was extremely hurt and confused because not only was my gift treated with disregard, it was rebuffed and dismissed. I spoke to a Dharma teacher to help understand. He said, “Maybe you did too much.” When we stretch and give beyond what is comfortable, we may lose our balance and become attached to the outcome.

Giving with attachment means we expect something—thanks, acknowledgment, or appreciation—maybe a gift in return. A question to ask ourselves before we give, is “Can I be ok if there is no response to this gift? Can I still give without wanting anything in return?” If the answer is no, perhaps the gift is too big or our heart needs some safety. Perhaps we need to look at our relationship and our intention to give. We may be caught in the duality of believing we are “the savior,” or we give to gain an advantage.

Knowing when we need to give to ourselves is also a component of giving. Caregivers cannot give without giving to themselves—a gift is not generosity of it hurts ourselves and creates discomfort and instability for ourselves and our families. Giving needs to include the three qualities of the gift. The wellbeing and intention of the giver, the gift itself, and the purity of the receiver. The Buddha described the receivers as worthy when they are free from greed, hatred, and delusion—when they can accept the gifts without clinging, pushing away, or receiving gifts as personal extensions of the self. These three components, intention, the gift, and the quality of the receiver, can remind us that we are not entering a discrete season of giving, but that giving is always here whether we acknowledge it or not. It is always transpiring in each breath, in each mouthful of food, in a smile and a word of kindness, in the temper tantrum we did not have on the phone with the health care representative—it all is giving—it all is receiving.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

If you have a chance, listen to this inspiring 7-minute podcast on the culture of giving. What Do You Give IF You Don’t Have Anything? http://howdoyoulive.com/podcast/podcast-006-nipun-mehta/

You are enough

 

 

 

 

Empty Means Full

Fall Maples

Changing leaves. Photo by Celia

“Let there be an opening into the quiet

that lies beneath the chaos,

where you find the peace

you did not think possible

and see what shimmers within the storm.” ~ Jan L. Richardson

 “Create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently, until the song

that is your life falls into your own cupped hands and you recognize and greet it.”

~ Martha Postlewaite

“Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window

toward the mountain presence of everything that can be

what urgency calls you to your one love?

What shape waits in the seed of you

to grow and spread its branches

against a future sky?” ~ David Whyte

“Treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.” ~Rumi

 

Dear Friends,

There was frost on the ground this morning. The dogs were delighted and came back jostling and excited by the cold. I was less delighted seeing the wilted sweet potato vine and thinking I really should pull it out, thinking about December and wondering when the earth will freeze hard enough to burst the terra cotta pots that I should really move indoors. The clocks turned back last week and for us in New England, this time can be filled with trepidation. The daylight hours shrink, and the sun sets before five o’clock. There is letting go—the leaves falling from trees, the letting go of warmth, of the summer flowers and growth—and with these shifts comes the tendency to look at change as a hardship and frame it in the negative. When we believe we can lose things, we look at the world with the perception of loss and deprivation. We believe that our world can become empty of light and warmth but when we understand change and the truth of emptiness, the ebbing of what we are accustomed to can be an opportunity.

There’s an old Zen story about a Buddhist scholar named Tokusan and the Zen Master Ryutan who lived in China during the ninth century. The scholar was an expert on the Buddhist texts and wanted to discuss a fine point of the Dharma with Master Ryutan. Master Ryutan served tea to his guest while they spoke about the teachings. As Ryutan refilled the cup of the professor, who was explaining his views in great detail, the tea reached the brim of the cup and spilled over the edge onto the table. Tokusan couldn’t contain himself, “Stop!” He stared at the Zen master who was calmly pouring tea as it pooled into the floor. “The cup is overflowing.”

“Yes,” answered the Zen master. “You are like this cup. You come full of opinions and beliefs and you have no room for anything but your own ideas. For you to learn anything, first, you must empty your cup.”

Red leaves Blue skyWhen we are full of our ideas and concepts, we have no room for anything else. We don’t live in accordance with the Dharma which knows the truth of suffering, impermanence, and the truth that we are not a small, limited egoic self. When we are able to empty ourselves of certainty, of our ill will, and ignorance, what fills our cup? Are we insisting our cup stays full of the very same conditions we are accustomed to, the ones that cause of pain? Are we unwilling to let go of what we have outgrown even when we can see that everything is changing?

The language of the Buddha’s teachings is framed in negative terms with the highest plane of awareness being nirvana [extinguishing or cessation]. The Buddha taught the end of suffering, the unbinding of the ten fetters, and the doctrine of non-self. All this can sound very dry and reserved for people who don’t want to enjoy things or have some special ability to cheerfully live lives of deprivation and hardship. But what is the end of suffering—happiness, contentment, peace, and ease? What do we make room for when we empty ourselves of the egoic driven belief we are separate and alone? We become connected to everything and everyone that has even been on this Earth or will ever be here.

When we empty of our self, there is space for the recognition that someone else’s good fortune is not bound by the contours of their body—there is the realization of mudita [appreciative joy], the connectivity of kindness and happiness. Emptying our cup of prejudice and ignorance makes space for universal friendliness (mettā) for compassion (karuna), and wisdom (prajna, Sanskrit/ pañña, Pali). When we move away from our attachment to the idea of ourselves, we gain the freedom to make mistakes. We aren’t bound by how others see us—we gain authenticity and confidence.

When we understand we are empty of a separate self, we have the space to claim our true inheritance—our connectivity to what is wholesome and brave. There is no vacuum or empty space that isn’t filled with the mind of love (bodhicitta) that is always present. When we remove what the Buddha called the defilements, the ten fetters, we are released and free to see what has been there waiting the whole time. The seeds of enlightenment, of Buddhahood which are always present in us all—when we empty our cup enough, we can give these seeds the space and attention they need to flourish.

Removing the thorn of hatred from our hearts is like removing the blockage that restricted the circulation of love. When we see what we are full of, it is a very different experience than focusing on losing things. We’ve all experienced moments when we’ve felt that predictability and safety vanished—maybe when we heard of a tragedy in the world, the state of our Earth, or a personal change when we lost a job, money, a home or someone dear to us. These moments are the emptying of the cup. We stop believing that life is unfolding according to a script and we step onto what can be very shaky new ground. In these moments we have a choice about what we want to fill our cup with—fear and worry, or equanimity, compassion, and wisdom, which understands pain and knows that we are capable of meeting our own suffering and the suffering of others with love, wisdom, and balance.

The highest qualities of the mind and heart, the heart that quivers with the suffering of another and knows the way to help is not outside of us. These beautiful qualities are waiting patiently for us to make space so they can rise to the surface. The same way the trees shed their leaves to make room for new growth in the spring. We empty to fill with something. We cannot inhale until we’ve exhaled. Seeing we are always in the process of emptying, what do we want to fill our lives with, fear and resistance, or with understanding and compassion? The choice is ours and as we see the cup empty, we can smile, knowing that empty means we are ready to receive.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

we are already what we want to become