mindfulness in daily life

“Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving” by Michele McDonald

“Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving,” by Michele McDonald

There are pitfalls in listening to mindfulness tapes in the car. Once I was talking to a woman at a workshop I was leading in Spokane, and she related that she’d once been so engrossed in a mindfulness tape by Thich Nhat Hanh that she’d rear-ended a truck. It’s for that sort of reason that I’ve never acted on any of the suggestions various people have made over the years that I should record a CD about mindful driving.

Michele McDonald, however, is made of braver stuff, and with both hands firmly (but gently) on the wheel she set off to record guided meditations that help turn driving into a mindfulness practice. And she’s done a good job.

Title: Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving
Author: Michele McDonald
Publisher: More Than Sound

Awake at the Wheel is a two-CD set of mindfulness exercises, also available as a download. There are seven exercises in all, from around five minutes in length to just over 16 minutes. The same exercises are repeated on both CDs, with less guidance being given in the second set.

McDonald is the founder of Vipassana Hawai’i and has been teaching vipassana meditation for over 25 years. Her Facebook page says that she has been a “quiet pioneer, having being the first woman to teach a formal retreat in Burma.” This experience shows, for her teaching in Awake at the Wheel is exemplary. She begins, in the introductory track, with emphasizing the need for safety, care for ourselves and others, and lovingkindness. And the final track is simply entitled “Kindness,” and is a what I’d call a “moving metta (lovingkindness)” practice. This framing of the entire program in terms of mindfulness is good on two counts: first, the listener may (we hope) avoid the pitfall of rear-ending a vehicle while listening to someone talk about mindfulness, and second, it emphasizes that lovingkindness and mindfulness are complementary, and even inseparable, qualities.

McDonald’s teaching is carefully crafted. She introduces mindfulness skills a little at a time, first just emphasizing the two “anchors” of noticing the sensations in the hands, and what we’re seeing in our visual field. In the first exercise she rather cleverly asks the driver to use oncoming regularly spaced objects (think telephone poles or fence posts) as ways to break the experience into manageable chunks. She builds from this to noticing the thoughts that arise when we space out and slip into autopilot, skills of “noting” (gently applying mental labels to our experiences), being aware of the body, our hearing, and our emotions.

In several cases she introduced a brief exercise, and then asks us to repeat it. This is an excellent way of helping people to, as McDonald puts it, “build a skill-set.” Her choice of words is excellent, and she has some insightful phrases, such as “The willingness to start again is the most important aspect of mindfulness.”

There were times that I thought she failed to suggest noticing experiences that it would be natural to pay attention to while driving. For example, she suggests that in our mindfulness of hearing we can pay attention to the sounds of birds (which I don’t think I ever notice), but doesn’t suggest being aware of the sound of the engine, or the swoosh of passing vehicles. When being aware of the body she doesn’t mention being aware of the movements in the arms. But these are minor points, and the mindful driver will no doubt notice these sounds without having them pointed out.

This CD set is, as I indicated, designed to be used while driving rather than listened to at home as a rehearsal for driving. I confess I listened to the program in my office, because I wanted to be able to take notes, and because I don’t do enough driving (I rarely drive for more than 10 minutes) to be able to listen to the whole program in a reasonable length of time. The exercises are, I think, more likely to be useful on longer, unbroken drives, rather than in stop-start driving in a city. When the traffic is heavy, or when I’m having to pay attention to navigating, I tend not even to listen to music. I don’t think that under those circumstances I would even attempt to listen to instructional guidance of this sort. I’d advise potential listeners to think carefully about which drives are the most suitable for listening to a program of this nature, taking into account driving conditions and the amount of time available.

There was perhaps only one thing I thought could have been usefully added to the mindfulness instructions, and that would be a brief track to be listened to while stuck in a traffic jam or while at traffic lights. The impatience and frustration that can arise in those situations is one of the most difficult things that drivers have to contend with.

Overall, however, this is a valuable contribution to the “oral literature” on mindfulness, and one for which there is a great need. I hope that the “mindfulness” label doesn’t put anyone off, because all drivers would benefit from listening to Michele McDonald’s skilled coaching.

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Meditation retreat brings balance

Annelie H. Pelaez, a nurse in Plainview, NY, writes about going on a meditation retreat in order to cope with the stresses of her work.

…At the end of my shift, I was exhausted. With blood spots on my uniform and waste stains on my shoes, I went home. That night I signed up for six-day meditation retreat for healthcare providers with Susan Taylor, PhD, which promised stress reduction through focused awareness.

Self-Preservation
I had seen the ad in Nursing Spectrum more than once. Although tempting, I thought six days was a bit long to be away from the “madding crowd.” But now I was feeling empty, worn out and longed for personal equanimity. I realized that I am my most important patient, and certainly deserving. I knew this retreat would not only make me a better healthcare provider, it also would serve as an intervention for self-preservation.

What attracted me was the promise of stress reduction, clarity of mind and learning to become more aware of my internal, emotional states. That sounded like a prescription for restoring balance when I am bombarded with sensory overload at work and think, “This is it! I cannot spend another day working as a nurse.”

Breathing and attention are the key principles to focused awareness. I learned that, when the breathing is calm and peaceful, the mind and body become calm and peaceful, too. Delivering more oxygen to the cells has a profound effect on the autonomic nervous system. Besides the therapeutic feeling of serenity, it also infuses vital energy. As nurses, we know that, but remembering and putting it into practice when we feel the pressure mounting is another story.

Now, when I have an intense, stressful moment at work caused by unstable patients, busy assignments or demanding family members, I can take two minutes out, establish calm diaphragmatic breathing, focus on my breath, and bring my awareness into the here and now. This reminds me that I am not the chaos around me, and I am not the demanding thoughts that bombard me. I am me, fine enough doing the best that I can, one thing at a time. This brings a sense of peace and stability most of the time.

Common Goals
Another great pleasure of the retreat was having the opportunity to spend time in a group, learning, exploring and seeking common goals. Everyone was there to learn techniques to improve their practice and patients’ conditions, but it also became a road to self-healing and empowerment. “Be true to yourself, know who you are, then commit to a lifestyle that supports your inner balance and well-being.” That was the message I received.

We cannot experience peace and joy trying to make the world what we think it should be, but rather by experiencing life as it already is. Remembering this at work and in daily life provides me with yet another great tool to relieve stress. Although the daily demands of nursing have not changed, my response to them has.

Sometimes we get so involved with mundane daily activities that we forget who we really are. This retreat was a chance to reconnect to my true being. We strive to serve our patients at an optimal level. Yet, since we cannot give what we don’t have, serving ourselves must come first.

Annelie H. Pelaez, RN, works in the ICU at North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System in Plainview, N.Y.

[via Nurse.com]
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What do you think about while DIYing?

Repetitive motions like housework, crafting, building, and fixing are a great way to focus the mind — or clear it into a meditative state. Maybe you think up your best ideas while you work, or a solution to a problem that’s been irking you. We asked a few DIYers what they think about while they work.

When tackling a project like upholstering a headboard, Grace Bonney’s mind always wanders to the same two topics: her dream home and her family. The curator of the popular home décor and DIY site Design*Sponge says, “I’ll pick up some fabric and start to daydream about how I’d use it as a dramatic curtain to separate the living room and the screened-in porch of my imaginary house.” (Grace actually lives in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York). As her tasks near completion, Grace often thinks of her mother, an avid home decorator. “She inspired me to pursue a career in design. When I’m working on a project, I sometimes feel like I’m channeling her abilities.”

It’s well-known that working with your hands is, for many, a way to unwind and help your mind focus, work through problems and hone ideas. It doesn’t matter whether you’re cleaning, crafting, building, fixing — any rhythmic, repetitive motions can act as a form of meditation. And while you’re in that trance-like state, which Harvard doctor Herbert Benson, M.D. coined “the relaxation response,” you tap into the parts of your brain responsible for learning, creativity, and insight. In fact, recent research from the Mayo Clinic found that people who engage in DIY activities like knitting are 30 to 50 percent less likely to experience memory loss.

For Jenny Hart, owner of the hip embroidery pattern company Sublime Stitching in Austin, Texas, DIYing is a form of stress relief. “I first tried embroidery during a very difficult time in my life: my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly, and my father was hospitalized,” Jenny recalls. “I thought I wouldn’t have the patience for embroidery, but when I finally gave it a try, I felt my entire world slow down. My body relaxed and my mind became calm and focused.” Jenny found stitching so soothing that she began doing it for 3-4 hours every day.

DIY Life contributor and home improvement professional Brian Kelsey works on building and repair projects in the evening hours while his young children are sleeping, “which allows my my mind to wander, and settle,” he says. To Brian, the act of working with his hands — focusing on creating crisp paint lines or perfectly mitered joints — is in itself meditative. “You simply aren’t able to think about the mortgage [that’s] due, your cranky boss, or whatever other stress you have in your life.”

[via DIY Life]
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Five steps to stoplight meditation

The mental and physical health benefits of meditation are endless. Even taking a few moments to quiet your mind and focus on your breathing can significantly reduce your body’s stress response, keeping your blood pressure low and your immune system strong. There’s evidence that regular meditation can be just as effective as anti-depressants in treating clinical depression.

So why aren’t more people meditating? One reason may be that people simply don’t know exactly what meditation entails. Another reason may be the most common excuse people give to nearly everything: “I don’t have the time.”

Martin Boroson, author of One-Moment Meditation: Stillness For People On The Go, knows a thing or two about adding meditation to your daily life, even for those with a busy full-time job, kids, and keeping up with the bills.

For people who don’t know where to begin with meditation, he recommends focusing on the rhythm of your breathing to center yourself. No need to worry about mantras, correct sitting positions, or ceremonial bells.

And for the people who claim they just don’t have the time, he offers these five steps to meditation no matter how crazy your day may be.

1. Micro meditation. Though meditation may conjure images of Buddhist monks sitting in caves for hours at a time, meditation can literally happen in just one moment—like those 30 seconds when you are waiting for the traffic signal to turn green, or those few minutes waiting for the receptionist to call your name at the doctor’s office. Even if you take just 10 seconds of your time to close your eyes and focus on your breathing at your desk before you open your e-mail inbox, those 30 seconds will go a long way toward keeping you centered for the rest of the day.

2. Right here, right now. Though it may help to have a regular spot at home to get into the groove, you really can meditate just about anywhere, anytime. In the car, at your office, in your bed, at a restaurant, on the plane, in the presence of large crowds or all by yourself. No matter where you are, you can take those mere 30 seconds to bring your attention back to your breathing and realign your thoughts.

3. Channel that stress. Are you freaking out about an upcoming project, your lack of sleep, paying the bills, or whatever else is on your plate? Use your high level of stress as an excuse to meditate right away before you lose control. As Boroson says, “There is no situation—other than a true emergency—that can’t be improved by a moment of meditation.”

4. Find “gap time.” We all like to say we’re busy. But there are probably many small bundles of time you’re wasting too. The next time you are stuck in line for something or trapped in bad afternoon traffic, use that “gap time” to meditate instead of fiddling with your smart phone or aimlessly checking your e-mail.

5. Use “gift time.” When things take less time than expected, use some those moments to meditate. Though we often don’t pay attention when this happens, sometimes things really do take less time than expected—speedy traffic during traffic hour, say, or an hour-long conference call that ends in 40 minutes. Invest in that saved time by meditating. Increased mental focus, reduced anxiety, a more optimistic outlook, and a heightened sense of intuition are some of the many mental health benefits you’ll begin noticing when you meditate regularly and often, even when you’re super busy.

[Mallika Chopra: good.is]
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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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Letting go, always letting go

martha and maryIn the first of a series of articles, The Rev. Canon Renée Miller explores Buddhist practice from the perspective of her own Christian faith.

The Dalai Lama says that meditation is the cure for every problem. That seems a bold claim to make. When we consider the various small and large problems in our lives, it doesn’t seem that meditation could resolve them. What can sitting in silence, counting our breaths do about the pain we feel in our bodies, or the fear we experience when we face death, or the lack of purpose we sometimes feel, or even the bread we baked that did not rise as it should have? How is meditation a solution for that?

Meditation actually applies to every problem, no matter how debilitating or simplistic we find the problem to be. These principles can be seen in stories of people that have lived them out. One story in the Christian tradition is about two sisters, Martha and Mary. We don’t know if either of the women was accustomed to meditating, but we do know that when Jesus arrived for dinner Mary was insistent on simply sitting at his feet. She didn’t seem to want to speak or attend to the details of the meal preparations. Martha, on the other hand, was so distracted, so worried about all that needed to be done, so consumed with the problems that loomed before her, that all she could do was complain – certainly not meditate!

 Meditation applies to every problem, no matter how debilitating we find the problem to be.  

Jesus’ response to Martha was that Mary had chosen the best part and it wouldn’t be taken from her. Jesus was saying what the Dalai Lama might have said to Martha — that meditation was the solution for every problem — even cleaning the house, getting the table set, seating the guests, being sure that all the dishes were prepared properly and that conversation flowed with ease.

We are accustomed to dealing with our problems by trying to find solutions to them, or by trying to escape them altogether. On the one hand, we stress, we worry, we plan and strategize, or we get more outside opinions. On the other hand, we turn on the television, take a drink, plan a party, shop, take a trip, surf the Internet. Even though neither approach seems to get us the results we hope for, we feel that we are at least doing something -– even if it’s just stressing about our problem.

I have found in my own tradition that there are two principles of meditation that make it the solution to every problem. First, we learn about letting go. Second, we give up our attachment to the result. The most important of these is the first -– learning to let go. It is counter-intuitive because we are so used to holding on, controlling, making something happen by our own will and action. Letting go takes us out of control, removes the drama around our problem, and leaves us with nothing to stress about or act upon. The good news of that is that it takes us out of control, removes the drama around our problem, and leaves us with nothing to stress about or act upon! In other words, when we sit in meditation and find issues, thoughts, and problems rising in our soul and we simply let them go, we are cutting them loose from us. Because we are no longer attached to them they cease to have power over us.

 Letting go removes the drama around our problems, and leaves us with nothing to stress about  

When we fully accept this, we move into the second principle of not being attached to the result. This is critical because we can separate ourselves from a problem for awhile, but still be seeking a certain resolution to it. When we fully let go of the result, we become as open as curious as children about how things will turn out. We’re no longer so afraid or uncertain. We may take action on our problem, but we are as surprised as anyone else about how it will all unfold.

Meditation helps us learn to let go and helps us practice letting go on a regular basis. It’s really only when we let go that we are able to be detached from what acts on our lives from outside. It’s only when we let go that we experience the freedom of detachment from results.

Letting go is not easy. It’s hard even during the midst of meditation, much less in the hard reality of everyday life. When we’re impatient waiting in line to check out at the grocery store, it’s not easy to let go. When our spouse has misinterpreted something we said, it’s not easy to let go. When our net worth drops yet again, it’s not easy to let go. When our computer doesn’t respond, it’s not easy to let go. When someone hurts us or betrays us, it’s not easy to let go. These are the hard, implacable areas of life – the ones where we tend simply to respond as we’ve always responded. Unfortunately, we continue to get the same results.

Imagine what would happen if we learned to let go. Imagine what would happen if we became detached from results. I believe we would begin to see our souls developing peace and fullness. I believe we would begin to see joy and hope slipping into everything we experienced – even those things that were less than desirable. I believe we would find ourselves becoming braver and bolder.

The divine truth is that the invitation to sit down and breathe is always there. And when we sit down and breathe we are surprised to find ourselves stilled and filled.

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3 Mini Meditations To Help You Through Your Day (Or Night)

HUFFINGTON POST: What stops you from sleeping through the night? Is it when things are not going your way or they look topsy-turvy and you just want to scream; when your life appears chaotic and you are not sure if you are coming or going; or when it feels like everything is piled on your shoulders?

Life should be an exciting and outrageous adventure. Isn’t it a wonder how a spider weaves a web or a bee makes a hive? Did you ever notice the small, everyday miracles, like the fact that you can breathe in and out? But how many of us get to experience this miracle? Sometimes life just feels too awful. We want to feel good, we want to be happy, in fact happiness is our birthright. But so often there are just too many difficulties to deal with. And although we may know that meditation chills us out, if we are feeling stressed or irritable then it just doesn’t seem so appealing.

So here are three mini-meditations, moments to just stop and breathe and remember why you are here. A moment to check yourself out, to look within, and to find what is really meaningful to you. You can get it together even when you think it is all falling apart.

Read the rest of this story…

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The Good Life: Meditation eases the mind

Tracy Press: Whether you attend church regularly, practice personally from home or have a unique spiritual practice, you can bring a sense of spirit into your daily life through practical spirituality.

It’s a way to stay consciously connected to your spirit and strengthen your mind-body-spirit connections. Even the busiest of us can take two to five minutes to help ourselves.

Look at the suggestions below and pick one to practice each day this week. Then, notice if you feel any different.

• Breathing exercises are easily the most basic and universally practiced way to slow down, relieve stress and bring more oxygen to our body and brain, helping us feel and think better.

Take three to five deep breaths using your diaphragm. Breathe in through your nose as you slowly count to eight; breathe out through your mouth to the count of seven. Your belly should expand and contract rather than your chest. Focus on each breath and turn your attention away from all thoughts that come up. Think “I am breathing in” and “I am breathing out.”

• Another option is to take a break during your day for a walking meditation, focusing all your attention on walking and slowing the movement as much as possible.

Walk in slow motion for three to five minutes. As unrelated thoughts arise (and they always do!), turn your attention back to your body. Consider how your legs move. What do your arms feel like when you walk? Notice the air on your skin. Observe everything about the simple act of walking, and think of nothing else.

By taking time each day to focus on otherwise mundane activities, you can create renewed energy and a more centered feeling through connecting mind to body.

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Where can a Buddhist escape herself?

Guardian: What is the point of an idyllic retreat if we lose all we have learned back in the noisy distractions of the city?

It’s not surprising that Norman Fischer – Zen master though he is – got up some people’s noses. His recent piece in the New York Times described his retreat on Puget Sound in such lyrical terms – blue herons, swallows, spectacular sunsets etc – as to evoke the Buddhist hindrance (“sin” is out) of envy. But more than that – as a number of bloggers immediately pointed out – it led to questioning the point of idyllic retreats in general. If William Blake could find heaven in a grain of sand, then shouldn’t we look for it in a thrown-away tube ticket and a MacDonald hamburger? Is it really necessary to retreat to settings of unimaginable tranquillity in order to attain tranquillity? And even if you got it, how long would it last?

There is the story of the monk who went off to his cave and meditated for seven years and concentrated on purifying the mind. When he emerged into the light of common day at the end of that time, he was thoughtlessly shoved aside by a small child. And instantly lost his temper. Farewell, merit.

Those small irritations of life do not feature on retreats. And nor do emails, mobiles, crowded tubes, traffic jams, getting meters read, tackling the taxman, dealing with sick child and cross spouse. Of course, the belief that you can actually “get away from it all” turns out to be illusory, and you inevitably discover you have brought “it all” with you in your luggage. But the speed of ones reaction slows down, not to mention the affect of having one’s bodily needs looked after.

The temptation is to see a retreat as a break: a sort of spiritual time-off and a counter to the stress of the everyday. And indeed, ones busyness does generally calm down and ones defences do drop. If only, you think, life were always so tension-free, how easy it would be to be nice/wise/compassionate. It is remarkable how quickly a tribal feeling can develop and the retreat end come to be marked by a feverish exchange of addresses and emails as you leave the group that you feel saw the real you. Return home and you encounter ordinary people with their own ambitions, projections, egos and demands.

But if retreat-mode can’t be carried there, what is it worth? That’s the logic behind the street retreats that were pioneered by Bernie Glassman. A charismatic American Zen teacher with enormous chutzpah and resolve, he set them going in New York and created a model that has since been followed in several European cities. Glassman led his students out onto the streets of the Bronx where they slept rough for a number of nights, ate in soup kitchens and begged. The very first one in London several years ago attracted sizeable press mockery because it was assumed it was devised to help people understand homelessness. In three days? scoffed the press, and all the homeless organisations expressed outrage. That would of course have been foolish, not to say blindingly patronising. Its true point however was to strip away people’s support mechanisms – even watches had to be discarded at the start – and to expose reliance on habit, conditioning, status and security. How well that works is a matter for personal experience, but it is certainly a counter to blue herons and fine sunsets.

When the Korean master Seung Sahn wanted to set up a centre in New York, he instructed students to look for a place on the busiest highway they could find. Another time, in the mid West, he dragged them into a casino in the middle of the night where Las Vegas’ hard-core gamblers were still obsessively at it. “But isn’t this against all the tenets of Zen?” asked the shocked students as he urged them to gamble. “if you do not understand their kind of hell,’ he replied, “how can you save them?”

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Richard Wagner: “We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word.”

richard wagner

Wagner’s advice, that we need to learn to die, may bring up thoughts of our mortality: thoughts we may not be comfortable dwelling upon. But Bodhipaksa suggests learning to die really means learning to live fully, embracing the ungraspable flow of life.

“We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word. The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness,” wrote Richard Wagner.

In Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, Siegfried is the hero precisely because he lives by a code: never to let your life be shaped by fear of its end.

Religion is often supposed to free us from fear of death, and yet that doesn’t always happen. A recent study of patients with terminal cancer revealed that those who regularly prayed were more than three times more likely to insist on receiving intensive life-prolonging care than those who relied least on religion. Those who prayed most were most afraid of dying.

That’s rather sobering. Those who you think might be most happy to meet their end — so that they could meet their God — were those who most resisted death and clung desperately to life.

 …never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind.

This is ironic, and not just in the obvious sense; those who insist on heroic measures being taken to prolong their lives experience greater levels of psychological and physical distress because of the invasive nature of the medical and surgical interventions they insist upon. Clinging leads to suffering. Seems like I’ve heard that before, somewhere.

Siegfried’s code could, I think, be expanded into something wider — never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind, with death being just one particular thing to be afraid of.

Life is full of “little deaths.” There are million things in each and every day of our lives that we can either cling to, or let go of.

Every thought we have, every sensation we experience, every feeling and emotion that arises is an opportunity for either clinging or for letting go. There are a million opportunities for experiencing fear: a million opportunities to live heroically, in small ways.

Examples: I’m driving to a class I’m teaching, going smack on the speed limit. A car behind me is driving too close, looking for an opportunity to blast by me. I’ve lost the “safe space” that I like to have between my car and the vehicle following. Fear arises. Will I just let this discomfort arise and pass, or will I tense up, start cursing the other driver, or speed up to try and put some distance between us, or slow down in order to get revenge? If I just keep driving, allowing the fear to exist, I find I can be comfortable with discomfort. I don’t, after all, have to fear the loss of the sense of ease that I previously had.

The driver passes me. I experience the loss of the sense of being in front of someone. I fear a loss of status. It seems absurd, but that’s what happens. And it’s OK. I remind myself that driving’s not a competition (a useful mantra, I find). I wish the other driver well.

We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.

A few minutes later in the same drive, and I feel a little bored. I’ve lost my sense of enjoyment. I fear the boredom. Will I turn on the car radio and see what’s on?

Maybe instead I’ll go deeper into my experience, take enjoyment in the quiet sensuality of driving, notice the movements in my body, the scenery passing by.

The vast majority of the time we don’t even notice these opportunities, nor do we notice when we capitulate to fear. These examples may seem trivial, but my point is that life is composed, in the main, of these supposedly trivial things.

“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness.” In each of the examples I gave above there’s an opportunity to love. I can relate to my own fear and discomfort with love. I can cultivate lovingkindness for the driver who tailgates and then passes me. After all his bad driving habits are no doubt being fueled by his own suffering. I can remind myself to appreciate (love) the ordinary experiences involved in driving, rather than assuming that I have to look outside of myself for fulfillment.

Wagner said we have to learn “to die in the fullest sense of the word.” I wonder if the fullest sense of the word “dying” is to die in every moment. Every time some experience arises that we can cling to or push away, we simply accept it and allow it to pass. And in doing so we have an opportunity to create moments of love that fill our lives.

Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to let clinging and aversion die. Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to live in the fullest sense of the word.

If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling.

“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness” because when we attempt to hold on to something that can’t, by its very nature, be held on to — and ultimately nothing can be held on to — we’re unable to appreciate. We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.

Wagner, in the same letter where he talked about the necessity of learning to die, pointed out that the lesson we must learn is “to will what necessity imposes.” If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling. In order to live fully we have to learn to let go completely, to make it our “will” to embrace change and to cease clinging.

But what about “real” death. Siegfried embraced life, but the death that he didn’t fear was a literal one. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, frequently reminds us that “meditation is a preparation for death, and that death is a state of enforced meditation.” Learn to let go in life and we won’t end up like those sad terminal cancer patients, unable to accept the inevitable. We’ll perhaps be able to love death itself and see it as another opportunity to let go.

The next time you’re meditating, look at what’s going on as an illustration of the truth that you can either try to hold on, or you can love. When you feel frustration because your mind’s busier than you want it to be, realize that you can instead simply appreciate and love the sheer busyness of your mind. When you find yourself longing for some joy that has now passed, realize that you can instead simply love whatever happens to be present in your experience, and in that way experience a renewed joy.

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