Taking Refuge means Not Running Away

I take refuge in the Buddha,

the one who shows me the way in this life.

I take refuge in the Dharma,

the way of understanding and of love.

I take refuge in the Sangha,

the community that lives in harmony and awareness.

~ Three Refuges Chant, Plum Village Chanting Book

Dear Friends,

It’s a new month, and we are changing again. In many Buddhist centers when someone joins the community, they take refuge. This is taking refuge in three things, the Buddha, and the promise of waking up, the Dharma, the teaching of truth and the path, and the Sangha, the community that helps us live following our values. These are called the three jewels or the triple gems.

Today there is snow, lots of snow and I watched a Dharma talk from a retreat I attended back in 2015. Sister The Nghiem, Abbess of White Crane Hamlet invited the community to note the difference between taking refuge and escaping. I answered that question six years ago and it seems truer today. When I take refuge, I stop, I come to a place of rest and stability. When I escape, there is the energy of running, of distancing myself from danger and there is a sense of dis-ease and dis-connection. When I take refuge, I am home, safe, and protected, and able to rest.

One of the realizations of living in this pandemic is that there is nowhere to run. There is no safe place to escape from the virus. While we can distract ourselves, we come back to the same truth there is no place immune from this. When we recognize that putting out trust in the transitory world does not provide stability or refuge, we can find that pace to stop, to come home, and to know we are living in alignment with our values.

This protection in taking refuge comes from recognizing that the teachings of the Buddha, offer us protection from pain and harm in our lifetime. When we follow this path of practice and live in accordance with non-violence, with compassionate speech, earning a living without harming living beings or our planet, with diligence and an eye towards the impermanent coming and going of all things, we protect ourselves from a life that gets complicated with delusion, distractions, and the pastime of acquiring more stuff than we can use in a lifetime.

The Buddha is recorded as saying:

Threatened with danger,

Many go for refuge to gardens, sacred trees, mountains and forests.

But such is not safe refuge.

Such is not the supreme refuge.

By means of such a refuge

No one is able to free himself from all these sufferings.

However, if one turns to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and Sangha for refuge,

Realizes the four Noble Truths: Dukkha [unsatisfactoriness], Dukkha’s causes, the

cessation of Dukkha,

And the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the

cessation of Dukkha

This indeed is the safe refuge,

This indeed is the supreme refuge,

Turning to this refuge, one frees himself

From all suffering. (Maitreya, trans., 1995, Dhammapada, 188-192).  

These three jewels are so precious because they give us clear directions of how to live a happy life. The Noble Eightfold Path, the medicine the Buddha gave to stop suffering, spells out the steps for conduct that will create a peaceful and meaningful life for us and the world. There are the steps of thinking about our interconnection and the understanding of the wisdom teachings, Dharma, that leads to happiness in Right Understanding.

We understand how to produce a pleasant thought and how to cultivate wholesome mindstates while letting go of the unwholesome thoughts in Right Effort. There is loving speech, truth, and deep listening, in Right Speech, and the responsibility of how our actions belong to us and affect others and ourselves in Right Action. There is accountability for our lives and for protecting the lives and wellbeing of others and the planet in Right Livelihood, not selling weapons, or substances that lead to intoxication and addiction.

In Right Effort, we deepen our practice with joy instead of harshness and criticism. Right Mindfulness calls us to be aware of our feelings, our bodies, and our minds, and in Right Concentration, we develop the diligence to stay with our meditative training. This ability to sit, calm the mind and look deeply leads us to insight which unties the knots that prevent us from freedom.

When we live in accordance with this happiness plan and seek the support and company of those who also want to create this world, we increase our happiness. This is the fruit of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and in Sangha. As we live with this awareness, we also see that the three gems are inside of us as well.

We are encouraged to take refuge in the Buddha in ourselves, our own ability to become awake, and to celebrate the moments we are already a Buddha! We may see this when we give a place in line to someone who is struggling, or when we refrain from joining with criticism in a group. We see that taking refuge in the Dharma in myself means that I recognize how this path benefits my life and that my practice directly affects the happiness or unhappiness of those around me. Taking refuge in the sangha in myself means I see the interconnected web I am part of and the support already here for me. I can see sangha in the trees in my back yard and in the ways that I am able to listen when someone calls with a concern they want help to understand. I see sangha as how my life stretches out and back, how I enact belonging for myself and others.

Refuge means we have confidence. In Buddhism, we are asked to try things out and see if they are of benefit to ourselves and approved of by those whom we consider wise. When we experience what refuge means to us, we naturally develop confidence and trust. This gives us the desire and the conviction to continue to practice. Our practice is meant to be joyful and to create joy for us. If we are suffering and making those suffer around us by our practice, we’ve grasped the teachings in the wrong way and are using them as a justification for more violence and separation from ourselves and others. Taken with care, these refuges offer us the solidity and ease, that enables a life of integrity, joy, and peace. The three jewels offer protection from avoidable suffering, a way out of confusion, and joy that rests on what is unshakable.  

May we all trust our light,

Celia

References

Maitreya, B. A. (1995) The Dhammapada: The path of truth, Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press

Trusting Myself is the Ground of Safety

Vermont Farm, Photo by Celia

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”

 ~Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays

“Self trust is the essence of heroism.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“For it is in your power to retire into yourself whenever you choose.”

~Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Can we hear the birds singing and the wind in the pines? Can we see the green mountains, the white clouds, the golden moon? The Pure Land is available in the present moment.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

In New England, we are seeing the Maples turn red and crimson, feeling the cooler air, and hearing the calls of the geese navigating their trip south. This is impermanence. This change doesn’t feel threatening or alarming, in fact, it creates delight and nostalgia. We look to see this change each year. This is one example of impermanence and adjustment, or resilience. Recently, I was speaking to a friend about what makes safety. Globally we are feeling unsafe and how can we find internal safety when so much feels threatening and unsafe?

It’s important to look at what creates safety. We feel safe when we trust we are protected from danger. Trust is a specific understanding created over time relating to consistency. When a person, event, or situation repeatedly demonstrates a quality, we trust that is what will manifest. We trust that snow is cold, that night follows day. We trust our dearest friends to be warm and welcoming and that our least favorite people will continue to act in ways that conflict with our values. One area that we tend to overlook, is how we trust ourselves. Right now, how are we trusting ourselves? The quality of confidence and trust we have in ourselves is the source of safety we can expect to find in the world. Another way to say this is, the most important trust relationship we have is with ourselves and that will inform the quality of all other trust relationships in our lives.

So, how are we entrusting ourselves to our own care right now? Are we making space to hold our uncertainty and fear with tenderness or are we running from it into distraction and consumption which fuels more uncertainty? We all know that this world and our lives are impermanent and the bodies we inhabit are subject to change. Even though we see and experience these changes all the time, we don’t recognize how we are made to adjust and adapt.

One practice which comes from Buddhist teacher Donald Rothberg, is noting impermanence. He offers a practice of spending ten minutes a day seeing how things change. When we consistently contact this truth, the fear and resistance around uncertainty shifts and change becomes normalized. Is also helpful, to notice how we have adapted to impermanence and inform ourselves about our own resilient capacity. We can notice this in the small and large. Highlighting that when we were sick in the past, we went to the doctor and we got help. We can notice that when the temperature changes, we get out the winter clothes and create warmth and wellness for ourselves. Most of us learned how to drive a car, call an Uber, or use public transportation to go where we need to.

Noting how we are adaptive and resilient strengthens our confidence in our ability to care for ourselves and for others. We can look at this through a larger collective lens too, when we saw George Floyd murdered in the street, millions of people took action. Globally, we are creating vaccines; we are collectively invested in healing the planet; we are capable of responding with adaptation, creativity, and stamina. This is the strong and flexible nature we all possess.

The mind cannot be in two states at the same time. We cannot be in fear and in trust simultaneously. Those two things may flicker and wobble, but each has a distinct neural pattern and network. When we nourish these seeds of confidence in our own abilities and in our collective abilities, we create a safety and trust that is in harmony with flux. We can trust that whatever comes, we are adaptive and have the strength and resilience to show up for ourselves.

This is not a guarantee that there will not be pain or illness, or death, but we can trust that we have the strength to be present for whatever comes our way. That is how we are designed. We are capable of creating this awareness and nourishing our solidity each day when we make time to stop and care for our consciousness. Returning to ourselves, not abandoning ourselves to speculation, to fear and mind wandering, trains us to trust ourselves. This is the foundation of safety.

The Buddha told his followers, “Everything we cherish and hold dear today, we will have to let go of and be separated from in the future. In not too long a time, I will also pass away. Therefore, I urge you to practice being an island unto yourself, knowing how to take refuge in yourself and not taking refuge in anyone or anything else” (Nhat Hanh, 2007, p. 310). This relationship with ourselves is the most important relationship in our lives. Learning to take refuge in ourselves, despite changes and uncertainty gives us safety independent of any external events.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Reference: Nhat Hanh, T. (2007) Chanting from the heart: Buddhist ceremonies and daily practice. Parallax: Berkeley, CA.

Mourning Creates Space for Love in Our Hearts

“Freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves. It is a daily practice… No one can prevent you from being aware of each step you take or each breath in and breath out.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”

~Pema Chödrön

“What we have once enjoyed deeply we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”

~Helen Keller
Butterfly on Butterfly bush, photo by Celia

Dear Friends,

Last weekend I went to a local farmers’ market. Standing apart, in masks, we waited for each person to choose their produce. I watched hands testing the ripeness of tomatoes and cantaloupes, picking up eggplants, and putting them down. I didn’t feel safe and I noticed protection and judgment creating armor around my heart. As I paid and moved from the line, I saw two children sitting with their mother beneath a tree eating strawberries, enjoying the perfectly ripe sweetness on a summer’s day. Tears came to my eyes and I felt the sadness of loss, of mourning what was so extraordinary that day, the simplicity of ease, of pleasure, and safety.

Often when I talk about mindfulness, people want to know, how can mindfulness protect me from my pain? The answer is that mindfulness doesn’t take away what is painful. Mindfulness can help us make room for our pain and give us the capacity to hold it with loving awareness. I call this, “not abandoning,” and it is the core of my practice.

When I registered how deeply I felt the loss of ease, of welcome, and safety, I stopped and allowed the sadness and mourning. I felt it in the tears that came to my eyes, in my skin, and the pull in my throat and the feeling of my body closing around my heart. These emotions and sensations are hard to be with. As a nation and a world, we are encountering moments that stop us, moments where we see starkly what we have lost, who we have lost, and how we have lost each other.

This awareness of my suffering and the suffering of the collective is the heart work that allows us to show up for our mourning and loss. This sadness and grief when held with mindful, loving awareness tills the soil and prepares the ground in our heart’s garden. It germinates the seeds of tenderness and longing we all possess. Our mourning tells us we are vulnerable and connected to all beings. Our mourning shows us what is so important: connection, welcome, love, and a world where Black, Brown, and white bodies can all feel safe.

As I write about my sadness, a soft rain is falling on the straw-colored grass, bringing it back to life. Even in the short hours from dark until mid-morning, the grass seems greener, fresher, and more alive. This is aniccā, the Sanskrit word for impermanence and continuation. When I encounter that place of sadness in me, it has already shifted. I wrap myself in this moment, in the soft rain, the benevolence of nature watering her children. This mourning has cleared space in me to see what is still beautiful, the blue jay calling from the pines, the grass being born again, the kindness of the rain and my heart softens, welcoming back the ability to love what it loves, even when it feels so far from my grasp.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

My “No” creates my “Yes.”

Apple Hill, photo by Celia
“I will try, like them
to be my own silence:
and this is difficult. The whole
world is secretly on fire. The stones
burn, even the stones they burn me.
How can a man be still or
listen to all things burning?
How can he dare to sit with them
when all their silence is on fire?” from In Silence, by Thomas Merton

"Any attempt to change a situation either politically or otherwise should be based on the transformation of our own consciousness."
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
"We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize." ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Four Noble Truths

That both I and you have had to travel and trudge through this long round is owing to our not discovering, not penetrating the four truths. What four? They are the noble truth of dukkha; the noble truth of the origin of dukkha; the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha; and the noble truth of the way to the cessation of dukkha. ~DN 16 (with dukkha left untranslated)

I’ve been thinking about the Four Noble Truths and how they manifest in my life. What I find is the more I understand my suffering, the more I can see how I create the conditions that lead me to heaven or to hell. When I engage in compassionate awareness of my thoughts and beliefs, I take the first step towards creating a life that meets me with kindness.

The first Noble Truth the Buddha asks us to understand and keep alive in our lives is “The Noble Truth of dukkha,” often translated as the Noble Truth of suffering (Digha Nikaya, Sutta 16). The word Dukkha is nuanced and relates to the pain of being in a body that gets sick and old. Dukkha encompasses the irritation and discomfort of constant maintenance since all things fall apart. The distressing recognition that what is truly lovely and good doesn’t last since it is made of moving parts and cannot be sustained independently is also how we encounter dukkha. We can’t imprison our happiness, our love, our good mood, and health. It all changes and we come smack up against what we don’t want, the angry person, the conflict, the sickness, shame, fear, someone getting what we want, frustration, painful bodies, getting what we don’t want, and the shared pain of those we love who are caught in their own sticky web of dukkha. Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is either caught in or fleeing from this wide net of suffering.

This can lead to the common misunderstanding that many folks have, that life is suffering. We know that life includes suffering, but it also includes the end of suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that when the Buddha said suffering (dukkha) exists, with that statement he also acknowledged the opposite of suffering, the sukha, the sweetness that exists as well. With the insight of “interbeing” the understanding that nothing exists independently, no thought, no person, or thing. The day does not exist without night, fullness without emptiness, the inbreath cannot exist without the exhale to make room for it, all things need an opposite to bring them into existence. Just the way we would not comprehend hot, if we did not know cold; when we acknowledge the challenges of dukkha, of what is unsatisfactory and unwanted, we can understand that there is also the sweetness of the end of dukkha.

We’ve all had those moments when we realized something painful ends and there’s a break in the clouds. Our internal sun comes out and we feel it in our bodies, they are more spacious and light, there is more air in our cells, our muscles lengthen, constriction and tension in the body and mind eases. The protection and fear around our heart softens and we can let the heart space be radiant and unafraid. We change from a fearful protected being to one that is integrated and part of this world. We rest in the awareness that while there are difficulties and challenges, there is a place of open awareness and understanding, a place to find that stillness in the midst of busyness where our busy minds and weary bodies find refuge and stillness simply by remembering choice and our powerful “no.”

The Second Noble Truth is the noble truth of the origin of dukkha, meaning that what we do, think, and say, are all ingredients for creating happiness of suffering. We have more choice and more power than we believe. Indeed, the world we live in trains us to feel lack and does not willingly give us an understanding of our own authority over our lives. What would happen if we decided we didn’t want to torture ourselves with wanting to look like that person in the magazine, to be that size, that successful? What would it do to our GNP if we decided we don’t want the promotion that means we will be glued to our computer for 11 hours a day? How would we step away from suffering if we say no to the fear and shame that keeps us quiet when white friends tell a hand-me-down joke that ends with white people laughing at an old fiction about Black people? How would we stop suffering if we say no to harsh speech that harms and divides when we long to illuminate and raise us all up?

The Third Noble Truth the Buddha shared is the cessation of dukkha or the way to happiness since the ending of suffering is happiness. How does your “no” lead you to happiness? Saying no when we bump up against words and actions that do not support our deepest values of kindness and consideration leads us directly to the Fourth Noble Truth, the path of mindful living. We can let our “no” to exploitation and lies, align us with Right Speech and Right Livelihood. We can practice letting our “no” keep our lives simple and free from overscheduling, over-commitment, and overwork. “No” means we can stop doing and learn to sit still long enough to find that quiet place and that peace we all have inside of us leading directly to Right View.

In interbeing, no does not exist without a yes. When we say “no,” what are we saying “yes” to, “yes” to kindness, to inclusiveness, to honesty, and to the most beautiful gift we can give ourselves, time to just be. Our “no” creates our “yes” which gives rise to these qualities that make our lives more wonderful and make our world a place we want to inhabit. We all have to work for our own salvation. There is no one-size-fits-all training or belief that will give it to us. The world we live in likes us better when we comply and say yes without questioning, “how is this for my heart, for my soul?” It is hard-won and sometimes heartbreakingly painful to look at what we have said yes to and to chose again to give ourselves the gifts that we didn’t believe we deserved, to give ourselves time, consideration, gentleness, and the recognition that we belong here, we matter, and we are more powerful than we have been taught.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Sticks & Stones

The Buck moon, Photo by Celia

“Every time I mess up is a chance to practice.” ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

“We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may make difficulties for us or threaten our safety.” ~ From the Ninth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing

“Our survival as a species depends on our ability to recognize that our well-being and the well-being of others are in fact one and the same.” ~Marshall B. Rosenberg

“Anger may be a source of energy, but when you are angry you are not lucid. You may say or do things that are destructive. That is why it’s better to use the energy of compassion or the energy of understanding. People should know that the energy of anger can actually be transformed into the energy of understanding and compassion. We don’t have to throw any energy away. We only need to know how to transform one form of energy into another.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

I am breathing in and out with awareness as I write this. I want to acknowledge the aspect of change and transformation in this time—and for me, it feels monumental, even overwhelming as I look on the world I live in and see what I want to change. In the past six months, we have been forced to stop. All of us, to stop doing what we do and to see the interconnection that exists between us. As a species, we had the time and availability to have our hearts and minds penetrated by injustice and White bodied people had the opportunity to hear and see the pain, the heartbreaking consequences of White supremacy. White people did not have the luxury to believe it wasn’t happening in their neighborhood, and that somehow they are exempt from the responsibility of creating a new White culture that does not trade in violence and oppression.

If you are White reading this, I am wondering if you want to step away because this feels like someone else’s’ problem? If you are BIPOC reading this, I am wondering if you are feeling exhausted from a life dealing with this stuff and you don’t have the capacity to take in any more? And what I am wondering more and more, is how are we going to do this important work and stay connected without alienating each other? How am I going to talk to my White brothers and sisters about making space for non-White culture without scaring them, making them think they will be unsafe and unprotected. Without making them wrong and bringing more division? How do I stay connected to my Black brothers and sister’s who will wince when I say the wrong thing and sound like a White lady who does not understand that justice and equality are not causes that can be picked up and put down, but life and death for people who are born into Black skinned bodies? I am not going to tell People of Color that they need to be patient with the processing of White folks, who feel exhausted after a month of waking up to the nightmare of systemic racism and want to be soothed. I think it is time that as White people we need to start with ourselves. We need to hear the truth without running into defensiveness, denial or attacking. We need to breathe and stop, take care of the feelings we are experiencing, and come back to this issue, again and again, if we are going to make any real change.

Isley beach, Scotland. Photo by Barbara Richardson

 This is a time when we are tested and called to use Right Speech. We know we can create heaven or hell with our words. How do we remember that we belong to each other when we see that even among those who want the same thing, there is hurt, misunderstanding, and righteous indignation?  I look to the Buddha’s teaching about saying what is difficult, “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them” (MN 58.3). I think it is the right time and even as careful and kind as we are trying to be, we will hurt people and make them angry and get mad and invariably make the other person an enemy, unless we go slowly and do a lot of pausing.

When we have hurt others, the Buddha offers a path, “Having performed a verbal act, you should reflect on it… If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful verbal act with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future.” (MN 61). The Buddha tells us that we should acknowledge the harm we cause with our speech. We do not make excuses and say the other person is too sensitive; we own the consequence of our action and work to do better—even when the intention was good, we own the pain of the outcome. This is an important point, as we navigate our relationships in the world. The refusal to acknowledge how our words land is an action that stems from aversion and delusion which in turn creates negative karma. We can see this easily when someone feels hurt or shamed by our words and starts avoiding interactions with us.

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that, like it or not, we are in relationship with all beings on this planet. When we feel harmed by another, we tend to isolate and avoid as a way to protect ourselves and stay safe. We imagine that removing ourselves from another is a way we can punish them for unskillful speech. Thay (2013) writes, “We want to show the other person that without him or her we can survive very well. This is an indirect way of saying, ‘I don’t need you.’ But that’s not true. When we suffer, we need others. When we suffer, we should tell others we suffer, and we need their help” (p. 79). Thay gives us a mantra to remove the pride that keeps us stuck in isolation, judging, and hatred, “I suffer, please help” (p. 79). Right now, there’s a lot of suffering. If I believe I can get rid of those who are making me suffer—I am perpetuating the very culture of division, stratification, and blame that I am wanting to erase. I become part of the system that seeks to dominate and “win,” and have power over other beings and prove my side is “right.” We don’t ask our enemies for help. It feels too vulnerable. But that’s exactly what we need when we are hurting…we need help.

It feels huge right now to think about a paradigm shift in culture, where society is not based on the dualistic notion of winner and loser, or dominance and submission. It feels like a revolution of thought, the same one Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King spoke of, the creation of the beloved community. We can’t do this work when we dismiss and discount others when we leave them behind because they aren’t evolved enough. The only way we can do this is if we all pick up a rope and begin to turn this giant boat around. We need many hands; we need many hearts. I think of the Plum Village song, No Coming, No Going, and the lines, “because I am in you and you are in me,” this inseparable truth that we affect each other. We matter to each other and we need help. We are all suffering, please help us.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

References:

Nhat Hanh, T. (2013). The art of communicating. Harper One: New York, NY.

“Right Speech: samma vaca”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-vaca/index.html

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

Watering the Good Seeds

ferns close up

A family of ferns. Photo by Celia

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou

“Every child is born in the garden of humanity as a flower.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

The Four Mantras of True Love

“Darling. I am here for you.”

 “Darling. I know you are there for

 “Darling. I know you are suffering. I am here for you.”

 “ me.”Darling. I am suffering. Please help me.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh, From the Dharma talk, True love and the Four Noble Truths, October 14, 2013

Dear Friends,

How are you doing in all this? I am wondering if you have found a rhythm and some routine in our new normal. It appears that our quarantine will be with us for longer than some of us expected. There are more uncertainty and more fear in the world. This adds to our allostatic load, the amount of stress our bodies are exposed to. Increased stress in our environment, leads to greater burden on the basic physiology of the body to perform homeostasis. As a result, we have less physical and emotional energy and less resilience and capacity. If we are confined with our families, it can be tense. We long for our own space and for that partner to go…somewhere…anywhere, but here. The kitchen is too small. The food is boring and still, we are eating. There is nothing to do and yet, we are exhausted. We are vigilant and afraid, and the enemy is invisible and the people we love could be unwitting agents of illness and death. All we want to do is have some comfort, ease, and return to what was normal. This is a confusing and tough time when we are called in to manifest the highest qualities in ourselves—like gratitude.

Last weekend, I had the privilege of being with a virtual sangha of young folks. There were two sisters ages 2 and 8 on the video teleconference who lived in Manhattan. Their mom was immune-compromised, a single parent, who told us they had not been outside of their apartment in six weeks—and yet—the kid played, sang, breathed with the bell, and were kids.

During the call, we had a session of flower watering. Winton Hill, flowers Flower watering is a practice where we acknowledge the gifts of another person and let them know we see them; we appreciate their goodness and it makes a difference in our life. I watched the 8-year-old smile and light up as her mom described the beautiful qualities she saw in her daughter, her patience with her sister, the ways she was helpful, and dependable at home. The older sister watered the flowers of the little sister and they hugged. The mom watered the flowers of her little daughter saying she brought joy and laughter into their lives and kept them very busy. She hugged her kids and I could sense how delighted they felt to be seen for their goodness, for someone to appreciate their true intentions. This acknowledgment nourished these positive qualities in the family. It really was like rain, an essential nutriment for beautiful flowers to grow. 

ferns against granite

This simple practice can do wonders, create connection, and let those who feel left out know they are seen and their contributions are meaningful. When we take the time to verbally appreciate the qualities in our children, friends, and others which make our lives more wonderful, we are contributing to shaping their future. This appreciation adds to their confidence and creates the trust to continue to act with kindness. When we are seen for our good qualities, we feel free to be our authentic selves; we can relax, and others feel relaxed around us.

In America, the dominant culture stresses blame and judgment which can fuel disconnection and isolation. We are quick to criticize, find fault and see injustices; we don’t always take the time to say how we feel when we encounter goodness in others. Right now, gratitude is more important than ever. No one is certain about what the future holds. At this moment, while we are present on the Earth, what do we really want to tell people? What would we regret leaving unsaid? Telling someone you value them is a gift that costs nothing except our willingness to connect. This week, please consider all the people who make a difference in your life and in your day and let them know you are thankful for their kindness, for their humor, for their patience. Let them know how their being here impacts you and how they contribute to the world. When we can see our goodness through the eyes of another, we feel loved. Knowing we are loved is a legacy of priceless worth.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Dont ignore suffering

Making Meaning of our Lives

Rainbow

Today’s Rainbow. Photo by Celia

“At the beginning you may believe that the four Bodhisattvas are outside of us. If you practice steadily, you will see that you are also that Bodhisattva because you also have all of those qualities.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“Even fear itself is frightened by the bodhisattva’s fearlessness.” ~Chogyam Trungpa

“A bodhisattva is someone who has compassion within himself or herself and who is able to make another person smile or help someone suffer less. Every one of us is capable of this.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“Few of us are satisfied with retreating from the world and just working on ourselves. We want our training to manifest and to be of benefit. The bodhisattva-warrior, therefore, makes a vow to wake up not just for himself but for the welfare of all beings.” ~Pema Chodron

Dear Friends,

Sitting in my kitchen, I am wondering what is true for you? The responses to our shared situation are so varied and shift from moment to moment. I’ve talked to people who are feeling slight disruptions of life and those who are grieving the loss of connection and physical interaction, and those who feel like they are losing ground and fighting despair. I’ve seen in myself that what is meaningful in my life is created in community. Worldwide, we are seeing the loss of jobs and how much we value being engaged and useful. The lack of employment impacts our ability to care for ourselves and our families and is causing real anxiety and concern about our ability to survive. We may feel lost and rudderless as if we will be swept away by our inability to get things done, to make money and of course, to be useful. My inquiry right now is, what gives our lives meaning in this physically distant society?

I am reminded of the Great Vow of the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, “until the hells are empty, I will not become a Buddha. I will remain until every sentient being is liberated.” Each Bodhisattva offers us ways to stay connected to the intention to care for others, even though we may not be physically present with them. Our intentions are powerful. They are what creates meaning in our lives. In Buddhist thought, intention is what creates karma, or the results of our thoughts, words, and physical actions.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that there are four qualities of mindfulness: compassion and loving kindness, great understanding and wisdom, and action and vows. We need the mind of love and wisdom in order to take action and have the nourishment to continue acting in accordance with our intentions when things are difficult.  He reminds us, “When you love, you have to act. If you say that you have a lot of love but you don’t do anything then that is not love that is merely lip service.” When we invoke the Bodhisattvas’ names, we call upon these qualities in ourselves. Thay speaks about these same four qualities in the life of a Bodhisattva which enable us to bring compassionate action in alignment with our deepest values. “The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara illustrates the first aspect, love. Manjushri Bodhisattva represents great understanding. Samantabhadra is Great Action and Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva the Great Vow. In Mahayana temples usually the ears represent Avalokitesvara, Manjushri by the eyes and Samantabhadra by the hand.”  We see that the intention to be awake and to be of service requires us to hear the needs of others, the see what is useful and do able and the will to make it happen.

I know in our sangha we have those who are living Bodhisattvas.Spring Dandelions

They are writing cards to the elderly, calling friends, reconnecting with relatives and offering homes and support for those who are mourning. Taking our place as Bodhisattvas, we use our gifts to continue to act despite the limitations and adversities. As we take time to consider our roles in this new society, what makes us come alive for ourselves? How can we manifest the desire to connect, to care for others and in doing so, care for our own sense of meaning and contribution? Sometimes it’s a simple phone call or a text, a message of care, a trip to the supermarket for an elderly friend, sometimes it’s walking someone’s dog, or leaving a pot of pansies on a doorstep. Our actions can take many, many forms, but what is the connecting thread in all of these is the mind of love, the understanding of our own and collective aspirations and the ability to act, the mind that finds a way to love—even in this.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

I am here for you

All quotations from a Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on January 15, 1998  in Plum Village, France.

 

Leaving the Door Open

Daisy

Daisy. photo by Celia

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

 ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Feel the feelings and drop the story.” ~Pema Chodron

“This is one of the peculiar problems of our culture: we are terrified of our feelings. We think that if we give them any scope and if we don’t immediately beat them down, they will lead us down into all kinds of chaotic and destructive actions.

But if, for a change, we would allow our feelings and look upon their comings and goings as something as beautiful and necessary as changes in the weather, the going of night and day and the four seasons, we would be at peace with ourselves.”

~ Alan Watts

 “Peace isn’t an experience free of challenges, free of rough and smooth, it’s an experience that’s expansive enough to include all that arises without feeling threatened.” ~Pema Chodron

 

Dear friends,

I am wondering, as I write this lying in bed, how many of you are feeling a little blah or low energy amid all this uncertainty? Or maybe you are feeling a lot blah, and understandably exhausted because of the new technology you are being asked to learn and implement in a flash? Or maybe you’re feeling relieved that things are slower, or really scared, or guilty that you aren’t feeling gratitude for your health at this moment and instead are frustrated by the lack of sports or availability of lentils at the market? I offer us all a great big, “yes,” to it all. The changes we are all encountering are enormous, even if our lives are relatively unaffected if we already work from home and live a solitary, sanitized life, we are all connected to this tremendous chain of reactions, worries, and feelings that are spilling into our homes via television, internet, and social media.

Some of us are finding it difficult to hold all this information and the reverberations of global suffering, worry, and anger. We may find we spiritualize and attempt to dismiss our worry and overwhelm as just thoughts we don’t have to believe—or to get entangled with the suffering and find it hard to focus. We can’t read or do anything but watch the news and get some satisfaction that we know all the current infection rates and death statistics. Like it or not, as embodies being who share space on this planet, we have a response to this collective upheaval. When we are able to acknowledge that we are affected, without suppressing, denying, or become swallowed by our feelings—we can begin to calm our nervous system and to allow our feelings to come and go—the way feelings do.

People I have spoken to are impacted by learning new technology and being challenged by working at home, trying to stay at a distance, feeling scared of contamination and despite the lack of doing, there’s a tangible feeling of anxiety and unrest in the world. This morning, I listened for about half an hour to the news. Afterward, I noticed that even that much exposure created a response in my limbic system. I was afraid, angry, blaming, there were flashes of despair and wondering. It was like an electrical storm. When I stopped and sat and left the door open to all these flashes of information, my feelings manifested, fed by the conditions of listening to collective fear and suffering—and then, when they were no longer fed—they left.

I’ve noticed that recognizing and allowing what is can feel like we are doing the opposite of what we should be doing. We would like to be patient and positive, the people who are unflustered by the empty shelves at grocery stores and respond with equanimity when our children ask us for the fifth time if they can go visit their friends and we say no. But sometimes we aren’t equanimous. Sometimes we are hurting because everyone around us is hurting. Being honest about what’s manifesting in us is one way stop the struggle and be able to relax into what is. My dog Daisy has offered me a very apt analogy.

Daisy is one of my rescue dogs. I didn’t meet Daisy before she came to my house. My daughter picked her out from a website because she was fluffy and had pretty eyes. Daisy was one of two dogs who were suspected of having Parvo, a highly contagious disease for dogs. Daisy and her littermate were kept confined indoors in a small area and saw one woman who took care of them. Daisy spent three days being trucked to us from South Carolina. When she arrived in my life, at three months old, she didn’t know what grass was and was terrified of noises. She barked at men, distrusted shopping carts, trash cans, ladders, and anything that moved quickly. Three years later, Daisy is reasonably well adjusted. She is a highly effective watchdog, bred to guard sheep. She has decided that I am her sheep. She may look like she’s sleeping, but she tracks if I make a move towards the door or put on my shoes; she’s ready. She is on guard to protect me from the cats who want attention and intervene if any humans dare to get close to me—including my spouse.

When I sit and meditate, have a Zoom meeting, or want a quiet phone call, if I think closing the door to the anxious Daisy will give me peace, I am mistaken. After a few minutes, there’s whining, scratching and it doesn’t stop. She lies down and waits; she makes more inventive noises. She becomes very distracting. When I open the door, she is excited and circles, checks me with her nose repeatedly—she is once again, distracting—her anxiety is reignited. She doesn’t let me out of her sight, and I can sense she’s on alert, knowing she might be banished.

What I have learned, is that when I leave the door open, Daisy comes in quietly. She lies down; she gets up and leaves. She comes back. She’s quiet. She isn’t frenzied about being in the room because she can come and go. She has permission to be there. She doesn’t touch me repeatedly with her wet nose or look at me with that wounded dog look. She is so quiet that sometimes I notice her, sometimes, I don’t. It’s the same with our emotional states. When we create these boundaries and set up conditions of shame and aversion, we increase the tension and anxiety we are trying to mitigate. When we open the door to what is there, we can learn to notice its coming and going without making it wrong, forbidden, or even something special. Feelings come and go. That’s the nature of feelings.

And please remember that there are no wrong feelings. Leaving the door open lets them come and go, lets them relax and know they too have permission to be here. We don’t have to carry them and to be bowed down by them. They can come and go knowing they are all allowed, they all belong.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

We Inter are

If you have some time and would like to listen, Nishant Garg and I take a deeper look into mindfulness, self-compassion, and forgiveness. Here’s the link http://nishantgarg.me/2020/03/24/celia-landman

And an article by me in this month’s issue of EPIC Magazine on Fierce Compassion. https://epicmag.org/pdfs/tricountyct-march-april-2020/?page=12