Be Yourself. Everyone Else is Taken

Blue jay in apple tree

Bluejay in Appletree, Photo by Celia

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  ~Heraclitus

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” ~Haruki Murakami

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” ~ Khalil Gibran

 

Dear Friends,

I hope you are all well and enjoying this spring. It’s hard to believe that we had a snow squall a few weeks ago seeing the apple, peach, and cherry trees in bloom. In Connecticut we are starting to cautiously re-open businesses. I’ve seen a traffic jam on the major highway and full tables at open-air restaurants. Life can seem normal, by which I mean, pre-COVID, and sometimes it can seem very not-normal as I find myself never wanting to touch a doorknob with an ungloved hand ever again, or harboring a mistrust of lettuce. One thing which is true always but seems more dramatic and novel is that none of us has been here before. This changing time in the world is new for all of us.

And, there’s lots of advice…so many things to read. I have well-meaning friends who send me articles from different viewpoints about the “best” strategies we should take, about the failings of the government to keep us safe and how to keep ourselves safe. One person tells me about herd immunity and that we should be emulating Sweden. A medical doctor tells me I need to stay isolated…another medical friend says, “no we don’t need to do that, only certain people do.” A practitioner sends me a sign up for another webinar. I am told to treat this time as a retreat…Meditate four hours a day…Garden…Play your flute…Make a commitment to write each day…And when all else fails—bake.

photo of flowers during daytime

In Zen, we have gathas, practice poems to keep us anchored to our intentions as we go through the day. Several years ago when I began graduate school online, I was overwhelmed with anxiety around the technology, the updates, the daily check-in on the school platform…all of it stretched me thin with worry that I would miss out. Entering the online world, I would get swept up in anxiety and find myself holding tension in my shoulders and in my mind. I was afraid I wouldn’t see a critical piece of homework; I’d post a reply in the wrong place or I couldn’t open the attachment from the teacher, my computer would crash, the internet would go down…and so many more. During my time as an online student, all these things happened—and I managed to survive.

After a few semesters of computer aversion, I wrote a gatha that I taped to my computer keyboard. Turning on my computer, many voices are calling to me. I promise to listen to myself and remember that caring for my body and mind is my highest priority. I aspire to be a presence of compassion for myself and everyone I encounter. While this reminder was not an instant cure-all for my feeling of overwhelm, it was a reminder that I could choose how I wanted to respond. Remembering that I had a choice allowed me to prioritize what was truly important to me.

When I remembered what my priority was, not being perfect, but taking care of my true home, my body and mind put things in perspective. I could take breaks. In one class, my teacher sent the class a link to the lying down desk which made my body so much happier for long hours of keyboard work. I worked when it was the right time for me. I listened to what was right for me…and I respected my capacity.

When we listen to how we are and what we are looking for we can create our own path. We can make our practice our own. Our practice does not look like everyone else’s. Even for those who live in a monastery and follow the same schedule of sitting, walking, eating, and working…their practice is not simply transferred to them from an outside source. Spiritual maturity requires we take responsibility for our own practice and make it our personal.

What I have found to be true is that our practice is made of what we do…and how we do it. It is a patchwork of our honest looking at our habits, the hurts that have healed and those which are still raw, our willingness to try and make mistakes, our ability to find soothing in our distress and our willingness to sit up with ourselves and hold our own hand when we can’t be comforted. It is made of celebrations when we don’t do the same thing, when we take a risk, are brave and vulnerable and we can see we have changed. Our true path is stitched together from all our woundedness, our celebrations, our ability to choose, authenticity, and failure…all of it create the path and the way we walk it. The two are not different. Our practice creates our practice.

The energy we invest in looking and clear seeing creates the foundation for how we practice. The essential ingredient is you. How do you want to be? What are you willing to do to commit to your own awakening? No one can answer these questions for you, nor can anyone do your practice for you. When we recognize that living with our own truth is more powerful and transformative than looking like a good practitioner following form without differentiation. We can start to make our practice our own. This is when things get exciting. This is when the practice of stopping and deep looking, making space for all our emotions can become integrated and truly support our life. This is not a dress rehearsal. As our teacher Thay says, This is it.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

11x17-master-sheet_0026_G026-This-is-It

 

Gratitude Means Taking in the Good.

Daffodil Hill

Daffodil Hill, Photo by Celia

Contentment is life living through you.

Joy is life living through you.

Satisfaction and strength

is life living through you.

He says don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid.

Love, feel, let life take you by the hand.

Let life live through you.

~ Hokusai

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”

~ Meister Eckhart

“Light will someday split you open; even if your life is now a cage.”

~ Hafiz

Dear friends,

This weekend offered those spring days where the temperature of the air on my skin made me happy. I opened all the windows in my house, shut since fall, and let in the sweet air. This clean air, the gift of limited travel, and fewer emissions blew through my house and filled it with the hope of spring, new life, light, and growth. I felt Grateful. Grateful for this day, the gentleness of the weather and my being here to breathe in it.

Contact with the weather and spring itself brought up pleasant vedana, the second foundation of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha. Vedana is a Pali word that denotes the three feeling states which populate each moment of our lives, the pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant. As living beings, we excel at noticing unpleasant, especially when it involves pain or interferes with getting what we want. We get gold medals in noticing what is wrong, unfair, and threatens us. We get silver medals at noticing the pleasant. In fact, we unconsciously lean towards pleasant. We shift positions constantly to avoid discomfort, buy sheets with high thread counts, and read about how to create lives with nothing but pleasant experiences. The third state is likened to a radio station playing very faintly, too soft to notice until it gets turned up and we like or dislike it. This experience is the subtle one that usually slides below our awareness; we often try to add something to our experience to escape from the feeling of “nothing much” or neutrality which we can find boring. Understanding how we are pulled by these three constantly occurring mindstates is a way we can gain some freedom. We can understand that we are running from what is unpleasant or neither pleasant or unpleasant or running towards what promises some sweetness.

Narcissus

But how does gratitude fit in?  Gratitude is mindfulness and appreciation of the pleasant. It is metacognition, the awareness of the embodied response to pleasure, ease, and happiness. When we have gratitude, we are not clutching at an experience of pleasure, but resting in awareness—oh, the sun on my skin is like this. The scent of magnolia flowers is like this…ah, pleasant.

Folks on spiritual paths can hold themselves to some difficult standards and mistake numbness and neutrality for spirituality and equanimity. We can be afraid to celebrate goodness for fear of becoming swept away by it and committing that Buddhist sin of “getting attached.” We may feel guilty experiencing happiness and delight when so many people on this planet are suffering and mourning. We can forget that our present moment awareness includes what is pleasant and welcome. If we push away our own happiness and dull our awareness, we are not helping those who suffer by tamping down our joy—in fact, if we do not have the nourishment of ease and happiness, we have fewer resources to offer those who are suffering. Noticing the pleasant does not mean we become hedonists, living solely for sensual pleasure and gratification. Noticing the pleasant and seeing it occurring is a way we can bring our mindfulness, the compassionate awareness of moment to moment experience, into full flower.

Gratitude requires that we are fully present for what is good in our lives. If we have a sense of guilt or hint of unfairness—that we aren’t deserving or we should be appreciative of our good fortune because others are suffering, we effectively snuff out real gratitude. Evolutionary biologist, Paul Gilbert (2009) describes this type of obligatory gratitude as “part of our threat/self-protection system. There will be a tinge of feeling bad at not appreciating things…Genuine appreciation is learning to take joyful pleasure; it’s not about ought or should feelings” (p. 238). When we practice gratitude, we are creating a conscious suggestion to seek and notice the positive things that are occurring.

When we train our minds to notice, we actively change the neurobiology of our minds. Neural pathways are strengthened from repeated use. When we actively encourage ourselves to pay attention to the lovely and pleasant, this creates neurogenesis, new connections that further reinforce this behavior. Just like anything, the more we practice something, the better we get at it—our thought patterns are no exception. We can follow our innate bias and continue to dwell on the pain and suffering in our lives or we can balance our experience and train in gratitude—in awareness of the beautiful as well.

There’s a song form the Plum Village songbook which goes: “The realm of the mind is mine I can choose, choose where I want to be. Both heaven and hell I know equally well, the choice is up to me.” This week, I hope you can make the choice to find what is lovely and delights you, to find the gifts of the cosmos that we so often overlook because so much is wrong. Wishing you many moments of delight for all the flowers that are still blooming in this topsy turvy garden of our lives. Daffodil head

May we all trust our light,

Celia

 

References: Gilbert, P. (2009). The compassionate mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. New Harbinger: Oakland, CA.

Dont ignore suffering