Posts by Sunada Takagi

Thumbs upWhen Sunada’s sangha in Boston had a big decision to make, they tried something different. Rather than taking a majority vote, they went for the challenge of finding a group consensus. In other words, they talked through a process where everyone contributed to envisioning a solution that all could support. And what a ride that was.

Impressions from a collective decision making process

When Sunada’s sangha in Boston had a big decision to make, they tried something different. Rather than taking a majority vote, they went for the challenge of finding a group consensus. In other words, they talked through a process where everyone contributed to envisioning a solution that all could support. And what a ride that was.

The decision to be made was this. Our basement level rented room got flooded with last spring’s heavy rains, and became unusable. Do we attempt to fix it back up, or do we move on? Although it was cold, damp, and dark, that basement had one big redeeming feature — it was affordable. Or should we rally our forces and look for a nicer street-level location, at potentially three or four times the rent? This latter choice would require a higher commitment from everyone. More time, money, energy, cooperation – really, more of just about everything. Were we ready for this?

I saw our crossroads as an opportunity, in so many ways. For one, it was a chance to put our commitment to Right Speech (i.e. truthful and harmonious communication) into practice in a real-life situation. In my tradition, the Triratna Buddhist Community, we hold sangha communication as central to practice. Each member is explicitly encouraged to grow into and express their own unique individuality. But at the same time, we commit to open and honest communication that builds community and cooperation toward a common good. As you can imagine, these two ideals can rub up against each other in practice and create some challenging learning situations.

In a consensus process, everyone’s views are taken into account. The idea is to openly listen to each other to look for common ground. It’s a long and messy process. To make this work, everyone needs to speak up – especially around disagreements. And working through conflict is a key part of the process. The goal is to reach a decision that everyone is willing support, even though it’s likely to be with differing levels of enthusiasm.

When we started, everyone had different ideas of what our options were, and how much risk we should take. And there were just as many different visions of what our future as a sangha looked like, and what sort of home would suit that vision.

There was much more to this experience than I can cover in this one post. For one, I won’t go into the specifics of how we managed the decision-making process. What I do want to share though, is what I personally took away, having been both a participant and facilitator.

  1. Don’t go in with strong views. It’s important for each of us to go into a discussion having sorted through the facts and considered our own perspectives. But it’s also really important to be willing to hear out other views nonjudmentally. Not just new information, but also other people’s preferences and emotions. (And that’s the difficult part!) This process can work only if everyone is willing to listen to everyone else, completely.
  2. Distinguish between facts and opinions. I did have a personal bottom line. I wasn’t willing to stay in a basement that had mold. Obviously that was a health hazard – and a fact-based objection. But I also didn’t find the basement very inspiring, and felt it dampened the energy of the sangha. That was an opinion. Don’t go down the rathole of arguing over opinions.
  3. It’s more important to listen than to speak. It’s really challenging to listen openly when someone is expressing an opinion we disagree with. Even if we’re staying quiet, it’s all too easy to be arguing against them in our minds, coming up with retorts, pulling up evidence to the contrary. I made it a practice to put myself in the other person’s shoes while they were speaking. I tried to hear what he was implying underneath his words, what assumptions were there, and so forth. It was really valuable in helping me to empathize with his needs and wants, spoken and otherwise.
  4. Don’t leave things hidden under rugs. Apologize quickly. Ask for clarification of anything that sounds like a judgment, criticism, or tightly-held opinion. Encourage quieter people to speak up (even if it means private conversations before or after meetings to get things out).
  5. Ask for clarification instead of arguing. It’s incredibly delicate to engage in conflict constructively. Even asking a simple question like “what do you mean by that?” can come across as argumentative if spoken with a strong tone of voice. I tried really hard to watch my mind and mouth. If I couldn’t find a place in my heart that was willing to hear the other person’s point of view without judgment, I tried to keep quiet. I didn’t always succeed, but I made a sincere effort.
  6. Leave space for everyone to express their feelings. After laying out the objective facts and options, there needs to be plenty of space for each person to say how he feels about it all. And to be allowed to do so without argument from anybody else. Although everyone wants to rely on facts to make the decision, often a difficult choice in the end has to be based on a gut feeling. And there needs to be room for the group to find its collective gut feeling.
  7. Trust the process. I was pleasantly surprised at how toward the end, we started to converge on an accord. As the facilitator, I didn’t make that happen. It happened naturally, because we had all listened to each other honestly and respectfully.

So what did we decide? We’re still mulling things over, so I can’t say yet. We still have a few things to check out, and we wanted to give everyone time to think about it. In the end, I think another order member and I will need to make the decision on behalf of the group. There was no one clear cut choice – not because of disagreements, but because the choice is so difficult. For everyone. But as one person said, he trusts us to keep everyone’s wishes in mind as we decide.

So it seems our experiment with consensus has worked well. And I feel as though our collective energy has grown a little stronger because of it. As hard as it was, I think it’ll be a great way to build sangha if we approach all our decisions this way in the future.

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When practice goes backwards

U-bend in road

I’ve not been feeling very well the last couple months. I feel tired and achy a lot of the time. When I meditate, I catch myself dozing off before too long. My concentration is off. I’m finding it especially difficult to write. I can’t put it into words, but something is just not right.

A couple weeks ago, my preceptor (the woman who ordained me) came to visit for several days. She had some helpful and encouraging words to say about this, and I thought I’d pass them on.

Sometimes when we have particularly deep and intense experiences, as I did on my retreat last July, we need some time afterward to assimilate. Sure, it’s only natural for the wonderful positivity of a peak experience to fade away. But she said it’s also not unusual for some part of us to resist afterwards. Or maybe just feel unsteady from all the inner rearranging that’s taken place. And it can feel like a step or two backwards, a regression.

That feels right to me. I have an image of me as a big elastic band. I stretched beyond my usual way of being, and now I’ve sprung back some. And to mix metaphors, it’s like my body and mind are working really hard to find their footing on this new ground they find themselves on.

Something inside me said “yes!” when she said that. There was relief in seeing this as a perfectly natural process. That given time, things will find their balance again.

I’ve long since given up on grieving over peak experiences. They were the result of a particular set of conducive conditions that will never be again. I can’t recreate them, and it’s pointless to wish for it. And I don’t begrudge the inevitable doldrums that come afterwards. What I’m going through now is also a result of the conditions that are in place. I’ve learned to trust in this natural flow of things.

And really, I don’t think my practice is going backwards at all, despite what I titled this post. This IS my practice. Learning how to move forward through unknown territory. Getting to know when to push ahead and when to rest. (And it seems now is a time for me to rest!) Finding out how to navigate similar roadblocks when they appear again next time. To be honest, I can’t imagine anything I go through is ever lost. Something stays with me and comes to fruition later, in some unpredictable way.

This is how I’ve gotten to where I am now. And I’m just going to keep moving forward. Because really, there’s no such thing as moving backwards.

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A Slow, True Path

This beautiful post came into my e-mail recently. It’s a wonderfully simple and clear exposition of the Buddhist view of life. Or maybe it just happens to coincide with my own. In any case, I thought I’d share it in the hope that might resonate for some of you as well.


A Slow, True Path
Pamela White affirms the beliefs of a Buddhist.

THIS I BELIEVE: That phenomena do not have any kind of demonstrable, intrinsic existence. That anything that is the composite sum of other parts is, logically, impermanent. That suffering is a given in any form of existence where confusion and ignorance are present. That when confusion and ignorance have been definitively eliminated, and goodness, caring, and wisdom have entirely taken their place, that is true happiness.

These four beliefs define me as a Buddhist and are the ground on which other beliefs are based. For example, I believe the teachings when they point to ego, to self-cherishing, to always being on the lookout for recognition, approval, comfort, and pleasure, as being so many hammers that fatally pound in the barbed nails of suffering. And I believed my teacher, the late great Tibetan master Gendun Rinpoche, when he answered my mother’s question saying, “Yes, if you attain enlightenment you’ll know it. How? Because suffering will have come to an end.”

The Buddhist teachers and teachings I’ve been taken with have encouraged me to honestly investigate, question, and delve. And time after time, I’ve had to concur: Trying to build happiness on a foundation of ego is like trying to build a tower on quicksand. But letting go—oh, letting go—is the simplest, most direct path to what I’m always scrambling to achieve with the most ineffectual, hackneyed methods— like crowing about being right, or trying to get something for nothing, or choosing the shortest line, or getting the biggest peanut butter cookie. . .

What do I train in letting go of? Not enthusiasm, or humor, or creativity, or curiosity. I train in letting go of selfimportance and its infinite ramifications. Not that it’s easy. I am the most important thing in my universe—take me out of it, what’s left?

How do I train?

I try to remember that every living being is also the center of its personal universe—from mite to mackerel to monkey. You are also the epicenter of your universe.

I try to take myself less seriously. I try to remember that every seed that is sown will sprout and ripen one day.

I try to imagine myself in the skin of others. And to love them for their qualities, and for the enlightened spark that underlies confusion. It’s hard going, appreciating instead of judging, but every now and then it simply happens, and when it does, I’m happy.

Sometimes I train through meditation, learning over and over again that the fullness and goodness of the present can only be recognized when I’m ready to will my mind to let go of the past and the future.

And sometimes I train by remembering and accepting the inevitability of impermanence and death, making the wonder of the present moment even more luminous.

I try to remember how lucky I am, and to be helpful, and to expect less. I try to understand the teachings of the Buddha, of enlightenment, and to put my understanding into practice. It’s a slow path, rarely an easy path, but it is a true path.

From “A Slow, True Path to Goodness,” © 2008 by Pamela White. Reprinted with permission from This I Believe, Inc., © 2006–2008.

[via Tricycle Magazine]
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Living the Dharma

As many of you know, I was away on a month-long meditation retreat during July. I have to say it was the most valuable thing I’ve done in years. It will take me a long time to digest and write about it, but here’s my first stab.

The retreat was at the Jikoji Zen Center (www.jikoji.org/) in Los Gatos California. It’s about an hour south of San Francisco in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the middle of acres and acres of nature conservation land (www.openspace.org/). My favorite spot, pictured, was along a west-facing ridge that overlooked vast tracts of mostly uninhabited mountains. The sunsets were gorgeous. Deer, wild turkey, and all kinds of wildlife roamed in plain sight. To say I fell in love with the place doesn’t go far enough. I know my feelings were influenced by my retreat experience, but I have to say the place inspired me down into my bones.

The memory that stays with me most is of the utterly exquisite silence. I blogged about silence a few months back, but this was of an entirely different magnitude. For an entire month, I was out of contact with the world. No phone, email, radio, etc. No contact with my husband (and he hated that!). All my roles and identities — wife, friend, coach, meditation teacher, etc. — all drop away. I was there as just plain old naked me. We were even asked not to keep track of the days, or the day of the week. We lived in three-day cycles called Buddha Day, Dharma Day, and Sangha Day. So we even dropped our connection with calendar time. In every way we could, we untethered ourselves from the manmade constructs of society and mind.

And of course there was no talking. I also went with the intention to be as fully present as I could for the entire month. I voluntarily refrained from reading or bringing any “projects” to fill up my mind. I didn’t do anything other than the retreat program, daily chores, self-care, and walks in the hills. For four weeks, I was completely with myself — immersed in the moment and flowing with each experience as it arose.

What happens when we do that is all our inner busyness dies down. And when we don’t fill our heads with “rubbish thinking” (as one teacher put it), something magical emerges. Here’s a little piece I wrote somewhere around the second week:

I feel as though my body is opening up and receiving the world. And filling with quiet awareness and spaciousness. Space not in the sense of a void, but an aliveness and sensitivity that fills every one of those spaces. With a real lightness of touch. It’s almost like my body is transparent. My body/awareness seems to extend outward infinitely in all directions. I’m particularly sensitive to sounds. Birds singing, forest sounds all pass right through me, leaving only their echoes and ripples as a sign of their passing. It’s like I’m not there, but I AM still there as awareness. There’s no boundary between me and everything beyond me. And I’m steeped in a groundedness – a feeling that all is right with the world.

The retreat brought home to me – again, I felt it deep in my bones — how alive and real the truth of the dharma is. I lived it for a month. When I let go of all the ways I throw my “self” up against the world, I see that I really am inseparable from that world. And to recognize this brings tremendous relief. The only thing that stands in the way is me. My own resistance, my compulsion to close down and isolate. The more I open up to these forces, the more they take me where I need to go. It’s not always where I WANT to go. But it’s where I NEED to go. I can put my trust in that. It was a real deepening and awakening experience.

Now don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t exactly floating in bliss for the entire four weeks. Like everyone else, I hit a few brick walls, too. Like excruciating physical pain and periods of complete and utter BOREDOM! But those, too, were gifts of the dharma. Lessons in letting go. But I’m going to leave that for another time and another post.

For now, let me leave it at this. We can read about the dharma, debate the ideas, and use it for personal development. But there’s SO much more to it than that. On this retreat, I felt it as a force of the universe — and a life-giving one at that. To ignore or resist it does nothing but create my own suffering. But if I open up to it, it leads me to places that my blinkered little ego hadn’t even imagined.

This quote came into my email a couple days ago, and I thought it was apt so I’ll close with it.

Many people are doing shamata meditation. This is a kind of resting meditation, also called “calm abiding.” This is good, but in Buddhist training you must go deeper than this. It is important to go deeper into emptiness—not nothingness, but into understanding emptiness as the nature of mind. This is where wisdom and compassion come from. And when you apply the method of this kind of meditation with nonjudgment, then lovingkindness and devotion and faith arise and work together to liberate one from suffering.

– Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

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Reconnecting with silence

Morning coffee

Being fresh off a retreat this past weekend, Sunada shares what it’s like to be in silence, and why it’s a good thing. Even if we don’t go on retreats, she thinks there are many reasons why it’s important to bring more silence into our lives.

A lot of the time we chatter just to fill the air. Not that talking is a bad thing. But sometimes we talk just because we’re uncomfortable with silence. We think of silence as the absence of something. It feels, well… empty. Not normal. But silence can be very rich, if only we give it a chance to speak to us.

Silence can be very rich, if only we give it a chance to speak to us.

This past weekend, I was on a retreat where we spent several hours each day in silence. So the experience is still fresh in my mind.

Early on in a retreat, there’s always a bit of awkwardness since you’re thrown together with people you don’t know. We wonder what to say, how to start a conversation, how to make a good impression. All that inner fretting.

When we learn how to be in silence with others, we find a deeper, more essential way of connecting with another human being.

But when we’re in silence, all that becomes moot. In silence, a lot of that pomp and posturing drops away. We don’t have to grope for something to say. We can simply be with each other, smile and make friendly eye contact. Perhaps offer a helping hand. Nothing more is needed.

And how often do we really do that with another person, on retreat or otherwise? I mean consciously offer our presence without pretense or an agenda? When we learn how to be in silence with others, we find a deeper, more essential way of connecting with another human being. In that unobstructed space, we don’t need words. Actually, words can pull us away from that basic ground of real communication.

Eating with others in silence can be a lovely shared experience… We’re all holding each other with kind awareness, and everything flows smoothly.

On this retreat, we ate breakfasts together in silence. And how often do we engage all our senses when we eat? Do we stop and take in the wonderful smell of a fresh pot of coffee? Hear the mechanical ka-chunk when the toast pops up? See the colors and textures of our breakfast cereal? Feel the creaminess and the chilly temperature of the milk in our mouth? Taste the bursting tang of the raisins when we bite down on them? How often do we slow down and really savor our food?

And eating with others in silence can be a lovely shared experience. What do you think happens if I want the butter at the far end of the table? When we’re all sitting with kind awareness of each other’s presence, it’s not a problem. If I’m holding a piece of toast, and looking toward the butter, somebody always notices and does the right thing. If necessary, there might be a series of taps on a neighbor’s arm and gestures and points. But the butter comes to me. Every time. No words are needed. We’re all holding each other with kind awareness, and everything flows smoothly.

This is all about mindfulness, really. Of ourselves, each other, and our surroundings. It’s also a deep respectfulness – gratitude even – of everything we encounter. Of our food, each other’s presence, everything.

When we stop talking, we get much closer to our experience and begin to glimpse what’s REALLY happening around us. I don’t think we realize how much talking can take us away from life itself. When we spend all our time thinking and talking, we start believing that’s all there is. But what happens is we end up thinking and talking ABOUT our lives, not actually living it. Skimming the surface.

I know most of us have busy lives, full of noisy hustle and bustle. Thinking and talking are obviously necessary for getting around, getting along, and even surviving in this world. But that’s all the more reason why I think it’s so important to reconnect with silence once in a while. Silence helps me drop down into the ground of something much more real. And it creates spaciousness and clarity in my mind so I can go back to that hustly-bustly world feeling fully present and alive, with all of me intact. I can’t imagine life without it.

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Mindfully navigating through overwhelm

to-do list

I have to confess, I’m a busy-holic. I’m often balancing at the knife-edge of being TOO busy. But everything I do is important to me, and I don’t want to give anything up. Recently, I started taking a different perspective, which is really helping me cut through the crap. Here’s what I’m doing differently.

There’s always something I want to do. I’m not only self-employed, I love my work and I’m eager to keep learning and growing personally and professionally. I’m constantly doing things with and for my Buddhist sangha. And I sing with my a cappella group, the Silk Tones. My calendar is always very full.

I know many of us feel oppressed by all the things we have on our plates … slowing down doesn’t seem like a viable option for many of us.

Yes, I’m happy with everything I do, but the sword cuts two ways. And recently I’ve gotten TOO busy. I knew I was in trouble when I was starting to lose the pleasure in singing. I found myself squeezing in my practice times at night when I was really too tired, and cramming music into my head just to get the damned thing memorized and done with. A lot of things were starting to feel dry and lifeless. I was starting to feel like that hamster on a wheel – churning from one thing on my to-do list to the next.

I bet you can relate. I know many of us feel oppressed at times by all the things we have on our plates. Maybe you don’t see a whole lot of choice. Maybe you need to work full time to earn a living to support your family, and maybe you have aging parents to care for, too. Whatever your circumstances, slowing down doesn’t seem like a viable option for many of us.

Knowing that feeling overwhelmed is a state of mind, I kept going back to that classic verse from the Dhammapada:

Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows even as the cartwheel follows the hoof of the ox … If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.

I knew it was me that had created my own unsatisfactory situation, so what could I do to change it? If I’m not willing to cut back, then how could I take the negativity out of the picture? What might a pure mind look like?

Here’s the key thing I’ve started doing differently. I shifted my perspective. I stopped thinking of time as a scarce resource that there’s never enough of — which kept me trapped in a “never enough” state of mind. Instead, I started seeing it as vehicle for expressing myself in the world. It’s my way of giving the best of myself. How I spend my time tells the world who I am and what I think is valuable. It’s not an easy shift, but it’s starting to bring more spaciousness into my days. And that’s priceless.

Every Monday morning, I now set aside about 30 minutes with a blank sheet of paper, away from my computer and “stuff,” to get a big picture view of what I’d like my week to look like.

In practical terms, this is what I do differently. Every Monday morning, I now set aside about 30 minutes with a blank sheet of paper, away from my computer and “stuff,” to get a big picture view of what I’d like my week to look like. How can I use my time this week to reflect the kind of person I want to be?

My focus isn’t on what needs to get done, but on ME, and what it would feel like to take my stand about what’s important to me this week. That includes taking good care of myself. Thinking this way obviously doesn’t do anything toward getting through my list faster. And that’s probably a good thing. Instead, it forces me to take a hard look at my priorities. If I spend my whole week on “stuff I should do,” I’m telling the world that I’m OK with letting others tell me what to do. Well, that’s not OK by me anymore!

Once I have that perspective in mind, then I go into the explicit list-making and prioritizing of my to-do list. Starting this way helps me to go about it with more clarity and sense of purpose. It keeps me more grounded and present, less likely to fly off into a race to get to the next thing. I’m also finding that I don’t cram as much in. Instead, I feel satisfied with an intuitive sense of what’s “enough” for each day and week, because it’s not about reaching for some elusive time when everything gets done (which of course never happens). It’s really about finding intrinsic satisfaction in everything I do.

Starting this way helps me to go about it with more clarity and sense of purpose. It keeps me more grounded and present, less likely to fly off into a race to get to the next thing.

Don’t get me wrong. We all have things we gotta do that we really don’t want to. I’m not saying we should chuck them out the window. What I mean is that everything we do is ultimately our own choice. I don’t particularly enjoy housecleaning, for example, but it’s still my choice to do it. It’s important to me to live in a clean, clutter-free, aesthetically pleasing home because it helps keep my mind in a similar state. So rather than resenting having to clean and getting through it as fast as possible, I do it while being mindful that I DO feel better when the kitchen counters are spotless. And I stay mindfully present and appreciate that feeling while I clean.

During the week as I work my way through the list, I try not to think in terms of “getting things done.” True, it’s unavoidable to some extent. But I try to stay mindful of why I chose to do each thing, and why it’s important to me. I end up doing things with more enjoyment and care. It takes the harried feeling out of the day. And when those inevitable interruptions and disasters happen, well, I’m still in touch with my larger intentions and can make a thoughtful choice on the spot. It’s like an improvisation. The interruption can become a part of my intentions. Or not, if it doesn’t fit. It’s my choice.

I stopped thinking of time as a scarce resource that there’s never enough of. Instead, I started seeing it as a vehicle for expressing myself in the world.

Sure, there are still times when I end up feeling a bit overwhelmed. After all, I did say I’m a busy-holic with a perpetually full calendar. But at least I recognize more quickly when things are out of balance, and then take time out to rejuggle things. I’ve also noticed that by being more present to what I’m doing (and not in a tight, self-referential, and task-focused state of mind) it leaves room for other unexpected possibilities to open up. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how often a possible solution to an intractable problem suddenly comes out of nowhere. I’ve lost count of how many times a chance meeting with someone points me to exactly what I need, for example.

I’m aware that some of you might be in situations that feel impossibly busy and unsustainable. Maybe following this approach just doesn’t cut it. Even so, I really do think the Buddha was right — we do create our worlds with our thoughts. We really do have a choice. Do you really HAVE TO do all the things you say you do? Do you really want to keep telling the world that everyone else’s demands are more important than your own well-being?

I urge you to take a more thoughtful stand and tell the world who you really are. I think you might be pleasantly surprised by what happens.

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Practicing compassion

Most of us probably think of the practice of compassion as synonymous with altruism. Giving. Helping. Being of service. Sunada flips that idea on its head — that it may be just as important to be vulnerable as it is to be strong, and to receive as it is to give.

We can get ourselves into a bit of trouble when we think of compassion only in terms of “giving.” It leaves a huge opening for our ego to step in. I don’t know about yours, but my ego is a sneaky little beast! It’s so easy to get duped by that guy.

We can get ourselves into a bit of trouble when we think of compassion only in terms of “giving.”

One way he tricks me is by turning my actions into a role or mask to hide behind. It’s such an easy trap — to fall into acting from that mask rather than a fuller experience of my being. To put it in the worst terms, I suppose it’s like the compassion gets a bit institutionalized. I act by rote because I know that’s what’s I’m supposed to do. An example is giving spare change to a homeless person because I had decided that I’m going to be kind to a homeless person today. If I just drop some coins in her cup without making an effort to at least smile and make a connection with her, then I’m probably acting from my role of “be kind to a homeless person today.”

One way [my ego] tricks me is by turning my actions into a role or mask to hide behind.

I’m not saying that’s bad, but it’s not true compassion. It’s more a contrived act than something springing from a fresh, alive connection to my feelings in that moment about the person and the situation. I’ve been taught that this called a Near Enemy of compassion. A Far Enemy is something that’s an obvious opposite, like cruelty. A Near Enemy is something that sort of looks like the real thing, but isn’t on closer examination. It’s that tricky ego sneaking in.

Even worse, the mask can become a shield for hiding away the parts of myself that I don’t want to show the world.

Even worse, the mask can become a shield for hiding away the parts of myself that I don’t want to show the world. It makes my ego feel good to think I’m strong and capable, someone who can step in and be of help. And yes, of course, there are times when I AM being of help. After all, that homeless woman probably really needed the money. But the Buddha always taught that it’s not the action that counts, but the true motivation behind it. Am I using my kind acts as a way to make myself feel better and compensate for all the icky stuff inside that I don’t want to deal with? If so, that’s not true compassion. That’s self-deception.

So then what does real compassion look like? It’s a lot more than just reaching out to help. I also need to open myself up to let others touch me. It’s just as much about being vulnerable as it is strong. And receiving as it is about giving. In other words, it’s only when we can bring the whole of ourselves forward to meet someone that a real connection takes place. And that’s a MUCH bigger challenge than simple helping or giving! And boy, it takes some real courage to do.

it’s only when we can bring the whole of ourselves forward to meet someone that a real connection takes place.

A few years ago, I was on a retreat that focused on becoming more ourselves and living up to our potential. We spent a lot of time on what was holding us back. What was our biggest fear about boldly stepping forward into what we wished we could do. One “secret” I shared with the group was how I wanted to be a singer, and to have the courage to perform publicly. Well of course, it’s impossible to say that to a group like this without getting prodded into singing before the weekend was through.

So I did it. I screwed up my courage and sang a solo unaccompanied song in front of everyone. I was nervous as hell and my throat felt all dry and tight. My voice cracked, and the notes at the higher end of the piece squawked. Yuck. It didn’t feel good at all. It probably didn’t sound all that good either. But of course, everyone gave me a big round of applause and kudos, because this was SUCH a supportive group.

But you know what? There was one person who was silently sitting there, watching me in tears. She hadn’t said much the whole weekend, and I knew that she too was struggling with her demons about taking a stand and openly being herself in front of others. Her response, more than all the others combined, is what has stayed with me. We didn’t talk about it, so I’ll never really know what was going through her mind. But it was obviously genuine, and obviously profound. For that one moment, I felt a strong connection with her because something real in me touched something real in her.

Experiences like this are what keep reminding me to get off my ego’s high horse. As much as it wants to see itself as the proverbial cavalry riding in to save the day, it’s not the most helpful way to see things. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just be a human being, here to share the fullness of who I am. It’s when I stop trying so hard to be something I’m not that something genuine pops up out of nowhere. It’s really very simple, though it’s sure not easy.

My teacher, Sangharakshita, wrote a poem about this. In closing, I’ll leave you with that poem, called “The Unseen Flower.”

Compassion is far more than emotion.
It is something which springs
Up in the emptiness which is when
you yourself are not there
So that you do not know anything about it.
Nobody, in fact, knows anything about it.
(If they knew it, it would not be compassion);
But they can only smell
The scent of the unseen flower
That blooms in the heart of the Void.

I first came across it over ten years ago, but it’s only now that it’s starting to sink in what he meant.

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Learning to love ourselves

Young girl in a green jacket catching a bubble

It happens so often among spiritually-minded people. We give our all to love and care for others, and yet when it comes to ourselves, we’re full of criticism and judgment. Sunada shares her experience of working with the practice of loving kindness, specifically learning to love herself.

It’s important to note that when the Buddha taught how to practice compassion, he always began with ourselves. This isn’t selfish. After all, if we can’t trust and open our hearts to ourselves – the one person on this earth that we know the best and are closest to – how could we possibly know how to do it for others? Any reticence, anger, or doubt we carry — no matter how hidden – will color all our relationships. As a colleague aptly puts it, “we can’t be the solution until we stop being part of the problem.”

if we can’t trust and open our hearts to ourselves – the one person on this earth that we know the best and are closest to – how could we possibly know how to do it for others?

Somehow we’re never good enough. I admit I often think this, though I’m getting a lot better about it. I’ve spent many long hours on my meditation cushion learning to love myself. The practice I’ve done is called the metta bhavana, or the Development of Loving-kindness. And I’ve spent a lot of time on that all-important first stage, which focuses on myself. The whole practice has never been easy for me, and to this day I still find it generally more elusive than Mindfulness.

I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned through this practice. What I describe is something I did in the context of a formal meditation (and specifically as the first stage of the metta bhavana), but I think it could also be done as an informal contemplation outside of meditation.

We allow ourselves to fall into a comfortable, open state of mind and body. What’s interesting is that by doing this, we’re already practicing kindness toward ourselves.

First of all, it’s important that we find a time when we can quietly just sit and do nothing for a while. So don’t do this while jogging, doing yoga, or eating dinner. I mean we literally sit still with no other agenda.

We begin by bringing our awareness inward to ourselves. As a warm up, it’s helpful to start by sensing all the parts of your body from the inside, one by one, from your toes all the way up to your head. We allow ourselves to fall into a comfortable, relaxed, and open state of mind and body. What’s interesting is that by doing this, we’re already practicing kindness toward ourselves. This is a great start!

Next we notice how we’re feeling. Literally just notice. We don’t need to analyze, judge or change anything. Is it a good feeling – happy, easy, content, calm, or peaceful? Or an icky one – restless, angry, impatient, bored, or depressed? Or is it sort of gray or blank, with no particular feeling tone at all? Maybe you’re feeling “something,” but you can’t put words on it. That’s fine. Any of this is fine. We’re just noticing.

We … accept the feelings that have already happened, but then train ourselves to respond to ANYTHING that’s there in the kindest possible way. That’s the practice.

What we’re doing is opening up to and receiving whatever we’re feeling RIGHT NOW. The degree to which we can be mindfully aware of what state we’re presently in, the better off we’ll be. How clearly are we seeing it? How willing are we to be with it, and not try to push it away or fix it, judge it as “bad” or “good,” but just be openly present with it?

Because we think this is supposed to be a practice of loving ourselves, we might be tempted to try to make ourselves feel happier and more lovey. Or that we somehow shouldn’t be feeling any of the bad feelings that might be there. In the traditional method, it’s suggested that we repeat the phrase, “May I be happy” to ourselves. That’s never worked for me, because it feels like I’m trying to change whatever bad feelings that are there. So I don’t do it. We need to start by simply accepting ourselves right now, in this moment, as we are, in whatever way works for you. There is no right or wrong.

Every time we turn to ourselves with patience and forgiveness for our supposed “failures,” we’re training ourselves to be kind. I find a sense of relief in being honest and authentic with myself in this way.

Once we have a clear picture of what’s happening, then what’s our response? Is it kind, positive, helpful? When we practice the Metta Bhavana, on one level we’re learning to see the difference between what we can and can’t change. We need to accept the feelings that have already happened, but then train ourselves to respond to ANYTHING that’s there in the kindest possible way. That’s the practice.

So then what if we can’t stop the judgmental, critical thoughts, or that “I must fix this” sort of feeling? Well, how would we respond if we found our best friend in that state? Would we tell her she’s being bad? Or tell her to just stop it? I doubt it. I’d want to sit down with her and be supportive, find out what’s underneath all those thoughts, and why she’s feeling that way. I’d want to at least just listen and let her know I care. Can we do that for ourselves? Now THAT is a practice of kindness.

Every time we turn to ourselves with patience and forgiveness for our supposed “failures,” we’re training ourselves to be kind. I find a sense of relief in being honest and authentic with myself in this way. It’s not an admission of failure. I’m not condoning my critical thoughts, but I AM forgiving the person who is having those thoughts.

When we open up and receive life as it is – without adding anything to it — everything flows to its natural conclusion.

So the whole idea here is to learn how to BE kind, right now, and not to try to shape myself into some future-oriented image of what I think I should be. The more we practice the act of being kind now, the more it becomes natural to us. This is the practice.

The Buddha was right. He said that in all things, when we eliminate the cause, the result ceases to exist. When we stop our negative responses, our habitual negative tendencies begin to weaken and fade away. When we open up and receive life as it is – without adding anything to it — everything flows to its natural conclusion. Like water flowing downstream into a lake, it eventually settles to a naturally calm, clear, and peaceful state. Effortlessly.

And that’s how I’ve begun to learn how to love myself.

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Facing Samsara, making a difference

Climate change. The economic downturn. Terrorism. And now there’s Haiti. A client and I were conversing recently about the mess our world is in. She was feeling overwhelmed. How do we, as individuals, respond in the face of such huge problems? I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim to know the answers. But I thought you might be interested in hearing what she and I discussed.

When we look at the mess our world is in, it can seem hopeless.

But let’s think back for a moment to another era that also was pretty bleak. During the early 1900’s, there were tons of intractable problems, too. I’m no history expert, but a lot seemed to do with forces of modernization getting out of hand. Urbanization, overcrowding, and industrialization were feeding into an unsettled political climate around communism, fascism, and democracy. Then the two World Wars followed. I’m sure people back then felt just as overwhelmed and helpless about their world as we feel about ours. Maybe more!

There’s a whole universe of causes and conditions that continually rebalance themselves somehow. That’s just what they do.

And yet, see what’s happened since. Not that everything has turned rosy, but the world has moved on. Those issues got settled through means we never could have predicted. Everything’s changed. There’s a whole universe of causes and conditions that continually rebalance themselves somehow. That’s just what they do. They always self-correct or at least just move on. It’s possible the entire earth will blow up or become uninhabitable from the damage we’re doing to it. This is also part of the rebalancing. The world will move on somehow. And I’m just a speck of dust in that giant process.

…I am part of those swirling causes and conditions. … I can do my part to contribute toward the direction I’d like to see the world go.

That doesn’t mean I get passive and do nothing, of course. Because I am part of those swirling causes and conditions. The power of the many of us put together is great. I can do my part to contribute toward the direction I’d like to see the world go. What’s beyond my control, I let go of and trust that greater forces than me will work it out.

The Buddha observed that samsara (a way of living in the world that causes suffering) will always be with us. That’s because humans have such a strong tendency to cling to our desires, push away what we don’t like, and act out of general ignorance. It’s when we project those attitudes out to our world that we create suffering for ourselves and others, endlessly. We cannot FIX samsara – at least not until we can change the attitudes of every living being on the planet!

The only way we can find our way out of samsara is to work on our own tendencies, and loosen the hold that desire, aversion, and ignorance have on us.

The only way we can find our way out of samsara is to work on our own tendencies, and loosen the hold that desire, aversion, and ignorance have on us. We can’t change the world, but we can each do our own part. That’s the only thing we have control over – changing ourselves. That’s the only responsible thing I can do.

There’s a Buddhist parable that applies well here. When the world seems too rough for us — strewn with sharp rocks and thorns – we could try to soften it by wrapping the entire earth so we can walk on it. But wouldn’t it be much wiser to put shoes on our own feet? With shoes, we’re in a much better position to help others, and to do so quickly.

In case you might be thinking that putting shoes on our own feet is selfish, here’s something to consider. I recently came across a study that showed that if I’m happy, I have a measurable effect on the happiness of those around me. For example, a friend living less than a half mile away has a 42% chance of being happy because of it. The effects were still there even out to three degrees of separation. Multiply that out to the countless people I encounter every day, and all the people THEY encounter, and the effects can be huge! I assume this is true for other states of mind, too. If I’m in a bad mood, I must have a similar negative effect. So my own thoughts and actions as an individual really do have an effect on the world. (I wrote about this in my blog here.)

The big challenge for those of us who are committed to serving others is how to stay sensitive to their suffering without falling victim to it ourselves. For me, when I get caught up in someone else’s suffering, or feel overwhelmed, it’s because it brings up my own feelings of fear and insecurity. The more secure I feel in myself, I’m less likely I am to get sucked in. So once again, this suggests that there’s real inner work to be done on ourselves.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we stop reaching out to help those we can. But let’s take care to do it mindfully. Let’s make sure we put shoes on our own feet first — take good care of ourselves physically and mentally so we’re standing on firm ground. I’m an optimist. When we take our stand in the world that way as positive individuals, we do make a difference.

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“29 Gifts” by Cami Walker

"29 Gifts" by Cami Walker

Diagnosed with MS at age 32, Cami Walker thought her life was over. But when she took up a challenge to give 29 gifts in 29 days, her life started taking off in amazing directions. Sunada reviews 29 Gifts, the remarkable true story of how one woman rose above her debilitating illness — and started a worldwide movement that has inspired thousands to work toward reviving the spirit of giving in the world.

Cami Walker seemed to have everything going for her when a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis put a screeching stop to all her plans. Her condition had degenerated rapidly in just two years — she lost vision in one eye, and found it increasingly difficult to walk. Unable to work, deep in debt, and with her brand new marriage under strain, she fell into a suicidal depression.

The gifts didn’t need to be big. Anything would do, as long as it was given authentically and mindfully.

It was her friend and spiritual teacher, Mbali Creazzo, that gave her a seemingly ridiculous prescription: give 29 gifts in 29 days. Mbali told Cami she was focusing too much attention on the disease, and hence was feeding it. So instead, try turning that momentum around by giving to others. The gifts didn’t need to be big. Anything would do, as long as it was given authentically and mindfully.

Many of the things Cami gave were indeed very simple — a tissue for a tearful friend, spare change for a homeless person, a homemade meal for her husband. The book chronicles the amazing shifts that began to take place for her over the month that followed. It’s a true-to-life testament to how the quality of our thoughts has a direct effect on the quality of our lives.

It’s a true-to-life testament to how the quality of our thoughts has a direct effect on the quality of our lives.

Some of the gifts weren’t even “things,” and brought along surprising lessons to the author. For example, on Day 2, Cami realized she could stop apologizing every time her acupuncturist friend came to pick her up to take her to the clinic for appointments. Letting go to her newly emerging sense of gratitude, she thought, “Just as I am trying to give consciously now, I will try to receive consciously, too.”

On day 6, a particularly rejuvenating yoga class inspired her to chant spontaneously, “May all beings everywhere, including me, be joyous and free.” Later when she began to doubt whether this gift was good enough to count, she realized how her own perfectionist nature had been getting in her way her whole life. And so by allowing that simple mantra to count as her gift for the day, she found yet another way to let go and open herself up to life.

by stepping outside of our small, self-contained worlds, we become part of something greater than anything that any of us can be or do by ourselves.

Cami understood from the very start what the true spirit behind this exercise was. It’s not about literally giving 29 gifts. It’s about living every day with a generous frame of mind — kind, gracious, and willing to open up to whatever life brings our way. Gradually, she began to see larger lessons as well – that by stepping outside of our small, self-contained worlds, we become part of something greater than anything that any of us can be or do by ourselves.

A year later, Cami’s life looks very different from where she began. She still lives with MS, but her symptoms are much improved. Her vision is back, and she walks on her own most days. Recent diagnostic tests have been clear, showing that her disease has stopped progressing. Her relationships with her husband, family, and friends are more intimate and fulfilling. She’s still in debt, but is paying off the loans regularly. She no longer worries about money, and sees it as “an endless resource that exists in the world and I trust that God will provide us with the funds to meet our needs.”

Her story has also shown me that one person can make a difference, and that wholeheartedly giving of myself – and just as importantly, believing that I am worthy of doing so — is really all that’s needed.

I have to be candid here for a moment. I typically don’t go for books of this genre. Autobiographies about life-changing spiritual awakenings are generally not my cup of tea. But what really impressed me about 29 Gifts is how far the author has gone to walk the talk. It turns out 29 Gifts is far more than just a book telling Cami Walker’s personal story.

It was somewhere around Day 5 that Cami started thinking big. What if thousands … or even millions of people committed to give 29 gifts in 29 days? What effects might that have on the world? And so she started with a simple idea to launch a website, www.29gifts.org, to encourage others to take up the challenge and share their stories. Three years later, this little idea has blossomed into a thriving global community with several thousand members from 38 countries. Its mission is to create a grassroots revival of the spirit of giving in the world. The last section of the book contains nine selected stories from members of the 29 Gifts community, and the website has thousands more.

29gifts.org has also spawned humanitarian projects all around the world that have done some powerful work. There’s Operation Teddy Bear (www.teddybearcare.org), which provides teddy bears, food and other personal gifts for children living in poverty in South Africa. And there’s Seattle Youth Garden Works, which trains homeless and underserved youth in basic job skills by helping them grow organic fruits and vegetables and sell them to area farmers markets. You can see a long list of wonderfully inspiring projects at the 29gift.org website.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Cami beautifully summarized what she learned as follows:

I didn’t know that when Mbala gave me this suggestion, what she was really trying to help me to do was to open up. I don’t know who said this …but a closed hand cannot receive. And that was me. I was just this tightfisted, resentful, angry, frustrated young woman at the time that she gave me this suggestion. Over the course of those first 29 days I really did feel myself open up and begin connect on a higher level with people and have more meaningful interaction with others…

I was not someone who was good at accepting support or assistance from others before doing this, and certainly before my diagnosis. I was very independent, and the loss of certain abilities — my physical abilities, and even some cognitive abilities to some extent — was a huge blow. The giving is what has helped me stay centered and balanced. It’s something that’s made me feel like I’m a part of the world at large. I hope that’s what it does for others too — to help them see they’re not alone in this world.

So what started as an exercise to get herself feeling better grew into an inspiration to be a force for good in the world. Her story has also shown me that one person can make a difference, and that wholeheartedly giving of myself – and just as importantly, believing that I am worthy of doing so — is really all that’s needed.

So … it’s gotten me thinking. How can I start giving of myself more, starting today? And perhaps you’d you like to join me?

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