On Purpose

  • On Purpose

Stories & Insights from Mindfulness, Dharma, and Waking Up Each Day

  • “I want this…I don't want that.”  How often this goes through our minds and drives our actions.  We are masters of perpetually seeking what we like and rejecting what we don’t like.  If we could pause long enough to see what’s right in front of us - really check it out, we may discover that things are mostly okay just as they are, and maybe even more than okay. Certainly there are circumstances and habits that don't support our well-being and need to be changed, but we can’t make those changes unless we take the time to know what’s there.   A few years ago I decided to give up sugar, cold turkey. For many years my daily breakfast was oatmeal with fruit, caramelized pecans and brown sugar on top. Quitting sugar required changing some deeply ingrained habits. What I thought would be extremely challenging, turned out to be quite natural, though I was partly motivated by an internal competition to see if I could actually do it.  But I had made up my mind to change, and while I was focused and determined, I was also curious.   Many months later while on a meditation retreat, where one graciously accepts whatever is offered, oatmeal was served for breakfast. There were also beautifully displayed heaping bowls of stewed and fresh fruit, roasted nuts and an assortment of sugar and honeys. Without giving it a thought, I automatically filled my bowl and gave it a healthy sprinkling of sugar. I thought to myself, “Look at that, you just covered your oatmeal with sugar. Well, I guess you're going to eat it.”   This was several days into the retreat and my mind was fairly quiet so I wasn't particularly perturbed or bothered that I was about to break my sugar-fast. I was mostly taken with just how hard it is to break one habit and form a new one.  Let up on the vigilance and discipline and zap! The old habit is right there ready to take over.   I distinctly remember taking the first bite and recognizing the taste but not quite able to name it – like something I used to know so well but now found somewhat foreign. “Oh, this is the taste of sweet,” I thought. It wasn't pleasant or unpleasant and I didn't want more or less of it, and coming from me, this was a monumental shift in perception.   It reminded me of a pithy teaching from Ajahn Sumedho, the prominent Buddhist teacher who often reminds us that whatever we're experiencing, “it’s like this.” Whatever it is - joy, contentment, anticipation, fear, frustration or boredom, it’s like this. And THIS is just what meditation practice trains us to see and feel.   It’s so easy to be in those continual states of wishing things were other, completely blind to the beauty around us. Mindfulness practice asks us to be still long enough to get absorbed in the changing colors of the sunrise instead of making plans to get up early tomorrow to see it again. It habituates us to be present now instead of making plans to be present later. It takes awareness to see what’s in front of us, to see how it is right now. And even when right now is difficult, uncomfortable or painful, “It’s like this” helps us stay right here right now, smack-dab in the middle of our lives.
    As strange as it sounds, meditation may reveal that we are happier than we thought we were. We may discover that ancient conditioning rather than present circumstances is causing our dissatisfaction, and that this moment is quite sufficient or even wonderful, and we simply hadn't noticed. – Wes Nisker, Buddha’s Nature: A Practical Guide to Discovering Your Place in the Cosmos
  • In an old Zen story a student comes to visit his dying teacher and asks “What is the teaching of your entire lifetime?” The teacher replies, “An appropriate response.”

      Each year my husband and I spend time hiking in the desert, most recently in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, just a few miles north of the Mexican border in southern Arizona. It is the only place in the US where the organ pipe cactus grows. It is also full of saguaro cactus, forests of saguaro; tall, multi-armed with comical gestures, some hundreds of years old.   The route to the park requires passing through several immigration checkpoints, heavy with the presence of American Border Patrol and many prominent signs warning about smugglers and immigrants moving through remote areas of the park. The signs explicitly said to call 911 right away to report any “suspicious activity.” When we asked a ranger at the Visitor Center about the warning signs, and whether or not it was safe to be out on the remote trails, she said “Oh this is such a safe place - there are eyes everywhere.” My husband and I just looked at each other.   Early the next morning we saw a Border Patrol slowly cruising the campground in his truck. As he approached our campsite, I walked over to talk with him. He was a nice guy, a ranger who’d previously spent ten years on horseback patrolling the Yosemite backcountry. I asked him about the warnings, about how big a deal the smuggling and illegal border crossings really were, and from inside the cab of his truck, fully loaded with weaponry and hi-tech communication devices, he told me that it’s a big deal–there were probably 300 people in the park at any given time. I remembered the comment from the ranger at the Visitor Center, and wondered if there were cameras camouflaged inside the cacti, if there really were eyes everywhere.   The nice-guy Border Patrol went on to say that if we saw anyone with a black water bottle, call 911. Other “illegals” may just ask for food or water, he said. We shouldn’t talk to them either, but call 911. Then I understood why we had such unusually good cell service in such a remote desert.   After he left, my husband and I talked about what we would do if we came across someone asking for food or water. There was no doubt that we’d give it to them - it wasn’t hard to discern the appropriate response.  

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      On a recent trip to local grocery store, I noticed a disheveled man sitting on the sidewalk near the front door asking everyone who passed by for food. Most walked right by not meeting his gaze or offering food - including me. We don’t want to look hunger, thirst and pain in the face. It’s frightening and forces us to touch our own vulnerability, to secure our protective layers that hide our suffering. I don’t know the conditions that lead this man to begging. But he was right out there - honest, vulnerable and raw.   As I exited the store, the manager was standing over this man, nearly face-to-face, loudly telling him he had to leave. The man kept repeating “I’m hungry, man, I’m hungry. That’s why I’m doing this!” They argued for a few minutes when he asked the manager “What would you do if you were hungry?” The manager stammered, “What would I do? What would I do if I was hungry?” as if stalling for time, trying to figure out what to say and manage his own frustration, exasperation and helplessness. I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, and I don’t know what became of the man, but I imagine he left hungry.   As a business owner, I tried to put myself in the manager’s position, consider what I might do, how I might respond and how I wanted him to respond. My fantasy was that he would have sat down on the ground beside him, relaxed his shoulders and said “I don’t know, man. I don’t know what I’d do if I was hungry like you,” and given him something to eat.   I think the truth is we don’t know what to do. Acknowledging our own helplessness makes us vulnerable and it is the most honest, most compassionate and just may be the most appropriate response of all.  
  • Despite our best efforts and much to our utter dismay, there are very few things we can actually control. When it comes right down to it, while we can mostly choose what we do, we can choose how we respond. That’s about it for control.   It is often said that what we attend to becomes our life. If you think about that, you’ll realize it’s quite true. All we really have is right this moment, and now that’s gone, too! So whatever you are noticing, taking in, giving your attention to right now is your life. Everything that’s already happened has happened. Everything that is yet to be is yet to be. The past is gone and the future is imaginary. All we can experience right now is right now. Of course we can experience feelings that come from past events, but the events themselves are gone.   Have you ever found yourself watching a spectacular sunset and had the thought “I should really watch the sunset more often,” instead of simply allowing yourself to be immersed in the experience? There’s a well-known Zen expression, “When doing the dishes, do the dishes. When eating, just eat. When walking, just walk.” The point is that the quality of our attention determines our experience, and our experience influences our actions.   And life is so fleeting. If we go through our days at work and home just going through the motions, we’ll miss the reflected light on the morning dew, the bursting buds on the rhododendrons, the way that one co-worker never has a harsh word for or about anyone and makes a point of saying “thank-you” to the custodians, and the dog who sleeps beside us wherever we are just to be close and let us know we’re loved. Whether we choose to watch TV, cook a meal, plant a garden, play the piano or hold our partner’s hand, when we do it deliberately we are truly present for our lives.   What we attend to, being present, living our lives on purpose takes a lot of awareness. Here are a couple of mindfulness practices you might enjoy.  Mindfulness in Conversations:Wherever we are, either at work or home, we all have the common desire for clear and kind communication so we know we’ve been heard and recognized. The language and the tone of voice we use, choosing good timing, telling the truth in a useful way, being clear about our intentions, and listening with curiosity and patience are vital components of effective communication. It takes a lot of attention and a lot of practice to get it right. A few ways of working with this are:
    • Keep your intentions and motivations in mind. What is the purpose of the conversation? You might use the acronym WAIT: Why Am I Talking?
    • Listen completely. Notice if you’re rehearsing your response before the other person has finished speaking. If so, you’ve stopped listening.
    • Tune into the needs of the other person. Ask yourself what this person needs. When you do this, your responses will be more accurate and effective. It’s a great way to develop empathy.
    • Think kind thoughts and use kind words. This really works! It changes the tone of the conversation, even when it’s difficult.
    • Notice if you’re making assumptions. Ask yourself “Am I sure? Is it true?”
    • With conflict and stressful situations allow yourself to pause. Practice the acronym STOP: Stop, Take a Breath, Observe and Proceed
    Cultivating Well-Being Especially at Work:At the beginning of the day, set an intention for how you’d like your day to go and what you can do to enjoy yourself. At the end of the day, think about the best moment of the day. Let it be something that made you feel happy, something that gave you real satisfaction. Think about it for a few minutes, visualize it. Maybe even tell someone about it. Try doing this and writing it down every day for a week. At the end, you’ll have seven days of satisfying moments at work and tangible reminders of your well-being.  
  • “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I never liked that question. Too tongue tied to say what I was really thinking, I would say either an art museum curator or a back-up singer for someone like Leonard Cohen. What I was really thinking was that I had no idea what I would do for money, but I wanted to grow up to be myself, to be happy. And it would still make me very happy today to sing behind Leonard Cohen!   My first real job was in a doughnut shop in Boulder, Colorado earning $1.88 per hour. I have a vivid memory of lazily sliding a blueberry doughnut across the counter to a customer who complained to the owners about my poor attitude. The customer was right; I didn't give a hoot about serving doughnuts. Not long after that I asked for an afternoon off to go to a Doobie Brothers concert with my friends. When my boss said no, I quit. Not much work ethic and no love lost. From there my jobs got better and worse, better and mediocre, then better and better. Overall I've been lucky enough to work in a way that has given me a lot of satisfaction.   Lately I've been thinking about the nature of work itself and how we often view of our work-lives as separate from our “real” lives; how many of us feel that life starts at the end of our work-day, on the weekends, on vacation or God forbid, once we retire. But work is real life and includes the full range of our thoughts, our emotions and certainly much of our time. The entirety of our lives is with us wherever we are. Our experiences, our familial and cultural conditioning inform who we are, how we see the world and how we act. Wherever we are, we bring our whole selves, no part left out.   For most of us, we hope our work sustains us in ways beyond our economic needs and desires. Whether we are staff members, managers or owners, we all try to manage ourselves, our relationships and our jobs as best as we can. We typically want the same things from our jobs regardless of our title: respect, trust, recognition, care, empathy, clear communication, a sense of community, and the freedom to creatively use our minds in ways that accesses our natural skills and talents. Managing our work-lives with mindfulness at the core helps create such an environment.   Giving our attention to whatever is happening in this moment whether we like it or not, whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, or somewhere in-between, develops our awareness and widens our perspective. When we're willing to be right here right now, our curiosity grows and our tolerance and resilience deepen and expand. This makes room for our clearest thinking, our kindest actions and our most skillful responses.   When we integrate mindfulness into our work environments, it becomes a way of being individually, interpersonally and collectively. It defines the culture of the work environment itself.  Quick & Easy Anytime Practices:Mindfulness of the Body: Anytime you feel stress, anxiety or fear, see if you can feel the bottoms of your feet on the floor. If you're sitting in a chair, try getting a sense of your bottom in the chair. Try it now. Notice what happens. What do you feel? What are you thinking about? When you focus on your body in this way, it immediately stops the mind-chatter about other stress. It doesn't solve the problem, but it re-directs your attention and brings the nervous system back into balance while you focus on these sensations. This works because the brain will not advance two storylines at once. Try that, too. See if you can focus on the sensations of your feet touching the floor while you think about the cause of your anxiety. You probably can't do both.  Mindfulness of the Breath: Taking a deep breath is a powerful and immediate way of calming the nervous system and letting us see a situation with a little more clarity. Try to get a sense of your breathing. Just feel your breath coming and going. Notice how breathing happens on its own without you controlling it, though you can certainly change its rhythm and depth. Placing attention on the breath functions similarly to noticing the feet on the floor. It re-directs the attention from whatever is happening in the mind and allows both the mind and the body to quiet.  Busyness at Work: We all know what it’s like to have too much on our plates. The pressure and expectations are high. We want to do well, and it feels impossible to keep up. When work is going a million miles per hour, don't speed up, try to slow down. Do one thing at a time. Talking on the phone while working on the computer is hard enough, but interrupting yourself by checking email and Facebook, or responding to chat windows at the same time is crazy-making, if not impossible. The brain does not naturally or effectively multi-task, even though we sometimes pride ourselves on how much we think we can do at once. Being thorough task-by-task is ultimately much more efficient and effective.
  • Pete Seeger was and remains one of my heroes. I was 12 years old the first time I went to see him in concert and I'll never forget it. He and Arlo Guthrie played and sang for hours always including the thousands of voices in the audience at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. I was a kid, and I knew this was something special.   It was 1972 and what Pete sang and talked about then, mattered. And it still matters today. Social and environmental justice, non-violence, courage, compassion, forgiveness and ultimately love. Just by lifting his outstretched hand to signal “now you join in” he could energize and inspire a crowd of any size. There really is nothing quite like singing with a huge group of people. Nothing. Even if, and especially if it’s This Land is Your Land, We Shall Overcome or If I Had a Hammer; dated yes, relevant for sure.  “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” is written on Pete’s banjo. It was an extension of himself, his heart, and its message was clear, poignant, harmonious, beautiful and necessary. It strikes me that the capacity of the human heart is the same as Pete’s banjo. What if we could have enough courage to surround our own hate or ill-will and force it to surrender? Can we allow our hearts to be the kind of force that melts hate?   The courage it takes to see things clearly, to confront any amount of ill-will either in oneself or others, even have a change of heart or mind,  and ultimately to find the understanding and compassion required for forgiveness is the kind of surrender I think Pete was talking about.   A few weeks ago in class I said I usually don't talk about awakening, enlightenment, or liberation because I don't know what it is. I've thought about that a lot since, and I've decided it’s not true. Not that I lied, but I've changed how I think about it, and I think I talk about it all the time. We talk about our struggles and what to do about them. How to live a life with as much freedom from a distressed mind and a constricted heart as is possible.   Most of us come to meditation practice looking for a way to manage and understand our lives; our struggles and challenges, our joys and successes right along with the everyday mundane. When we have those light bulb moments of understanding in new, clearer and deeper ways, those are moments of awakening, enlightenment and liberation.   Through the simple yet profound practice of sitting still and quieting the mind we begin to see what’s there and get to know ourselves from the inside out. Brilliantly, the added practices of Loving-Kindness (Metta), Compassion and Forgiveness lead us directly into the heart that can transform hate into tolerance, tolerance into acceptance, and acceptance into love.   Loving-Kindness practice* guides us towards letting go of all ill-will. That is liberation. We don't have to like everyone; we just don't hold a grudge. But most of us do hold a grudge on at least one person. As Sylvia Boorstein says, “If we are only one person away from no ill-will, isn't it worth letting it go?” We can be liberated from our own sour grapes.   Compassion is known in Buddhist teaching as the quivering of the heart in response to pain or suffering, our own and others. That is awakening. We begin to see that it is impossible to simultaneously hold ill-will and compassion together. As long as we're doing that, we're stuck in pity. Pity keeps us separate and closed off, but compassion brings us right into the moment and opens us up. By turning towards, being willing, peeling back the layers of our hearts to feel our own pain, the pain of others, the pain of the world, we wake up and compassion becomes the most rational and natural response.   Forgiveness is letting go of the hope for a different past. This is one of my favorite definitions. What a relief! The past happened. We don't deny it. It happened, along with myriad consequences, but the past is not happening now. We can blame, justify, analyze, and ruminate for years, but when we stop to bring in a little kindness and compassion, the complex hard work of forgiveness becomes more doable. These moments of understanding what is and is not happening now are moments of enlightenment.   Bit-by-bit and moment-by-moment our hearts can be machines that surround hate with kindness, compassion and forgiveness. These bits and moments of letting go, of surrender are bits and moments of awakening, enlightenment and liberation. They matter and they add up.
    Oh sacred world now wounded, we pledge to make you free of war, of hate, of selfish cruelty. In this small corner we plant a tiny seed. May it grow in beauty to shame the face of greed. –Pete Seeger
    And here’s a little more Pete and a whole lot of fun… Pete at Farm Aid, Sept 2013 with John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews and Neil Young four months before he died at age 94.  Pete, age 94, If I Had a Hammer, 2013  Pete's 90th Birthday Celebration, 2009  Pete singing Forever Young, a benefit for Amnesty International, 2012   *for more on Loving-Kindness Practice
  • Describing mindfulness often goes something like this:
    Mindfulness is deliberately paying attention to whatever is happening right now whether we like it or not, whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, or somewhere in-between. It’s about becoming fully aware of whatever is happening in this moment.  When we cultivate this kind of present-moment awareness, we see more clearly, have fewer negative judgments, less reactivity, and can even find some ease within difficult or challenging situations. Mindfulness increases our capacity to manage our lives just as they are, wherever we are, however we are right now.
    Which do you think is the operative phrase? See more clearly? Fewer negative judgments? Less reactivity? Does it change from day to day? Lately, I've been thinking it’s see more clearly. I know that what I think, what I say and what I do depend on my perceptions. With clarity of vision based on my direct experience, I am much more likely to make good choices and decisions.   Here’s a story I recently heard out of Kentucky, about a bagpiper who regularly plays his pipes at funerals in his community.   One day, the local funeral director asked the bagpiper to play at the graveside of a homeless man who died alone, no family or friends to attend his funeral or burial.  The bagpiper was moved by the request and wanted to help. It turned out the service was to be at a pauper’s cemetery in the Kentucky back-country, in a place he’d never been and the directions from the funeral director were a little confusing. Knowing this, the bagpiper left extra time to find the site so he wouldn’t be late. As it turned out, he got completely lost, did not stop to ask for directions, and by the time he arrived he was nearly an hour late.   When he finally got to the cemetery, he could see in the distance that everyone had gone except for several men who were eating their lunch beside the grave. The bagpiper felt terrible. Embarrassed, he rushed over to the men and asked them to let him play some music while they ate and before they continued their work. The men obliged and waited a little impatiently while he played, and played and played.   With tears streaming down his cheeks, he played Amazing Grace from the depths of his soul. The workmen couldn't help but notice the musician’s grace, the beauty of his music, and they too had tears in their eyes. When the bagpiper finished, they all just stood there, still and silent. After a minute or so, one of the men said, “Oh my, I’ve never seen nothing like that before, and I've been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.”   Seeing things for what they are, recognizing our assumptions and judgments; it matters what we think because it informs what we do. At least in this story there was no harm done and everyone enjoyed some beautiful music and a very good laugh!
  • It's traditional at the end of formal meditation to offer a "dedication of merit," a blessing or resolve acknowledging the efforts we make to practice and that the benefits of practice extend far beyond ourselves. In the Vipassana/Insight tradition, (out of which mindfulness meditation has grown) this dedication often ends with the lovely blessing "May all beings be peaceful, happy and come to the end of suffering."   In the early years of practice I didn't understand how my meditation practice would or could benefit anyone else, and the dedication of merit didn't really land anywhere. It was nice, but it felt more like something the teacher said to end the practice period.   During this time, I was very busy sitting quietly, breathing, noticing my popcorn mind, and mostly avoiding fights with my teenagers. But little by little, I saw how my decreasing  reactivity and increasing clarity had a very direct effect on me, my family, my work, on everything.  Over time I've come to understand what a profound and far-reaching practice this is, and that the intention to practice for the benefit of others is serious.   In that light,  this week's post is a very personal piece on forgiveness. I am excited to tell you that it was recently published on LionsRoar.com, the new online platform for Shambhala Sun  and Buddhadharma magazines. My motivation to make this piece public is that it may be helpful to others.   Please click Here to read it. I hope you enjoy it!     
  • Picking up where I left off last week; what brings us to practice, why we keep doing it, and what sustains us leads me to two of its fundamental requirements; dedication and effort.  Not as a forced or grim duty and that’s an important point, but the kind of steady dedication and effort that has the space and flexibility to grow deep roots in well-nurtured soil that bears fruit season after season.   It’s so easy to put off practice until the “right” time. But right now is often the right time to pause, notice the breath, and get a sense of the body whether standing, sitting, walking or lying down. (I have found this especially useful while waiting in what I thought would be the fastest grocery check-out line.) This simple act, which takes less than ten seconds, relaxes the mind and momentarily stops whatever has captivated my thoughts. It brings me right into the present moment. And, it takes a dedicated mind to pay attention and tangible effort to remember to stick with it, to come back to this moment, this breath, a zillion times over.   With gentle persistent effort, a certain kind of meditation muscle develops. We become more skilled at settling the mind and body even in the midst of stress and distraction. Like training in any discipline, the mind-body gets to know that when it assumes the meditation posture, it more easily arrives, settles, and relaxes into present-moment awareness.   This is not to say that once we're meditating our work is done. It’s just the opposite. Present-moment awareness requires steady continuous effort which is precisely what helps us notice the conditions of our minds; those that give rise to both the positive and negative, the wholesome and unwholesome; states like contentment, ease and happiness, or anger, resentment or even fear. While all mental states are true in the moment, in this training we develop the capacity to see these states for what they are, understand them sooner than later and learn to let go of what we don't need.   Even if we can't “let go” of negative or unhelpful mind states, we learn to let them be. I find this very helpful. When I am caught in difficult thoughts or emotions, if I remind myself to just let them be for now, the inflammation calms and my mind relaxes. There will be a time when I’ll likely have the perspective and skills to work with those thoughts and emotions, but I’m not required to jump off a cliff without a parachute. Meditation practice is about showing up, making the effort, and seeing what’s true.   Here are some beautiful meditation instructions from the Australian monk Ajahn Sujato.
    When you meditate, just relax. Don't try to control your mind. Don't try to stop it going here and there. Just be peaceful. Don't watch your breath. Just breathe. Be at peace when your mind is still. Be at peace when your mind is wandering. Don't judge one state as better than the other. It is just how the mind is. Let mindfulness settle down with the breath. As you stop judging, stop trying, and stop controlling, Peace will come to you. Welcome it.
  • My daughter Sarah had a beautiful butterfly stroke. She was eight years old and swam with fluidity, strength and desire. I loved sitting in the bleachers watching her swim, marveling at her ease and determination. Sometime that year, her father set up a trampoline in our back yard. The kids were overjoyed and all I could think of was disaster.   One day after school the kids were having a great time on tramp. My husband was out of town, Maggie, our German shepherd was in heat, and I was inside making dinner when I heard Sarah scream. I looked out the kitchen window and saw her crumpled on the ground holding her arm, the dog beside her trying to help, and her younger brother running in to get me. She had fallen off of the trampoline not while jumping, but while trying to get down by sitting on the edge, but missed the rim with her outstretched arm, and fell to the ground arm straight palm first. I grabbed a bag of frozen peas, piled us all (including the dog) into the front seat of my husband’s old work truck because he had the family car, and headed for the Emergency Room, where I used to work. The nurse in me knew she’d fractured her elbow.   What does this have to do with mindfulness or meditation? I've been thinking about what brought me to practice, why I practice and what sustains me. Sarah’s elbow fracture was really bad. It took lots and lots of physical therapy, many months to heal and it was the end of that beautiful butterfly stroke. About a year later, Sarah and I were talking about what sort of physical activity she thought would be fun and she suggested yoga. Not long after that, she and I took an Introduction to Yoga class series where my meditation practice crept back into my life and began to grow roots.   So when I think about what brought me to practice, it was my husband buying the trampoline and my daughter falling off of it. I can’t say, though, that I’m grateful for the accident. We got rid of the tramp not long after, but I am grateful to my daughter for choosing yoga and not being too embarrassed to go to class with her mom. I was lucky enough to have a yoga teacher who integrated meditation quite naturally into her teaching, and the same teacher for introducing me to a book written by Sylvia Boorstein, who is now one of my primary teachers and mentors.   It’s all really a great lesson in one thing leading to the next. Certain causes and conditions come together which cause other conditions to occur. This is the accurate definition of karma, consequences stemming from actions, actions creating new conditions; on and on and on. It’s not necessarily good karma or bad karma, though we often think of it this way. It’s just what’s happened because other things have happened. Because of this, that. Truly, nothing exists in isolation.   Because Sarah fell off the trampoline, my meditation practice, though by twists and turns, is now as much a part of my day as eating and sleeping. And sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Sarah had chosen rock climbing or running or bicycling. But she didn't, so I don't have to speculate about what didn't happen.   Why I practice and what sustains me are two sides of the same coin; mutually supportive and mutually required. I want to get to know myself from the inside out. I want to feel what’s there; pleasure, pain, confusion and surety. I want to see clearly enough often enough to make good choices. I want to be kind, period. I want to be porous enough to know compassion when I feel it and courageous enough to try when I don’t. I want to remember to be curious because I know it expands my tolerance, my patience and my resilience. And I don’t want to snap at my husband.   Developing wisdom, that’s why I am on this path. I don’t always get it right, but practice supports and sustains these intentions. It keeps me on track. And when I do get it right, I know why I practice.
  • I recently received a glossy catalog from a company selling high-end clothing, shoes and gear for the outdoor enthusiast. The cover photo showed a very fit and perfectly outfitted not-quite-middle-aged man just reaching the crest of a ridge trail on his morning run with the most magnificent view of massive alpine mountains in the background beneath a giant blue sky. The caption read “Suffer Better.”   The Buddha was right when he said that in life there is suffering, sometimes inaccurately translated and misunderstood as “life is suffering.” Not so, of course. Life is also full of joy, contentment, surprise, wonder and mystery. The First Noble Truth, and that’s what we’re talking about, says that life includes pain, challenge, stress, and sometimes even suffering, but life itself is not suffering.   When I read the caption on the photo, aside from getting a good chuckle and admiring the clever writer, it gave me pause to consider that when pain and difficulty become suffering, how can we ‘suffer better’? Buy more stuff? Be ultra-fit and run extreme trails high in the mountains? Travel to exotic places? I think it’s more immediate and accessible than that. Eat well, sleep well, recognize that we probably already have what we need, meditate, pay attention, be kind, include our grief and sorrow as normal, let go of unnecessary judgments, and perhaps most importantly, notice the good and love ourselves for who and how we are right now.   And we know how easy it is to get stuck in the muck. Sometimes it really is a difficult day and we really do feel lousy, but that doesn’t require us to become the suffering itself. Whatever challenges we face, when we can be utterly aware of whatever is happening in this moment, we may find that things aren’t as bad as we imagined. Rick Hanson, the neuropsychologist says “we’re almost always alright right now.” Think about it. Even in the darkest moments, there probably is some part of us that is okay. I find this very hopeful.   When we receive the mountains of seductive catalogs pushing us to Suffer Better by Buying More Stuff, there’s an apt teaching from the Buddha that instructs us to live our lives Five Bites from Full. It’s a great instruction for exploring sufficiency and satisfaction, and takes us far beyond eating. What is enough? How do we experience and know for ourselves when enough truly is enough? Five Bites from Full applies to all of the ways we consume; materially, relationally, electronically, everything. But food is a good starting point.   At your next meal, try putting your fork down in-between bites and don’t pick it up again until you’ve swallowed each bite. It takes a lot of patience, determination and a sense of humor to do this for even a few bites, let alone an entire meal. By slowing down, you’ll likely taste your food and experience eating in new ways. You may notice the colors, texture and beauty of the food itself, take the time for a more intimate conversation, and get a clearer sense of satisfaction and even sufficiency. And that is certainly plenty.   Living Five Bites from Full brings us closer to our fullness and perhaps even helps us suffer, when we do, a little bit better.
  • I’m still thinking about the heart-wrenching violence in Paris two weeks ago, how dangerous and wrong it is to hate. I'm also still thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr., that this is the week we publicly honor him, and that he taught us through his unwavering insistence how right it is to care.   And the thousands upon thousands of people who courageously filled the streets of Paris sent the same message. Violence is profoundly wrong and the right, most wise response is to show up and demonstrate the absolute necessity to care. It is our most natural response to pain. We are, after all, wired for compassion and wisdom, and this makes me feel optimistic.   We have a choice, really. When we're faced with pain and difficulty of any amount, whether internal or external, we can either turn away pulling our heads in like a turtle, or we can turn towards it, be willing to see it, feel it and do something about it. Certainly it takes some skill to sense the right time and place for stepping into the muck, but choosing action over inaction is ultimately what’s necessary, even when the wisest most effective action itself is inaction.   Here’s one of my favorite teachings from the Buddha.
    By protecting myself, I protect others. By protecting others, I protect myself.
    Initially this may seem on the one hand fairly self-centered or on the other, completely altruistic. Yet it is not the kind of protection that puts an impenetrable and isolating wall around us, nor the kind of protection that sacrifices our own health or welfare. It’s the kind of protection and care that by its very nature includes and affects the whole.   I think of it much like defensive driving; that by honoring the rules of the road, very little harm is done and we're mostly safe. But all it takes is one person to run a red light and the floodgates to injury fly open. With this teaching, the Buddha offers an accessible, logical and very sensible way of preventing, decreasing and responding to pain and violence of all kinds.   I've also been thinking about how all of this leads to our sense of rightness and wrongness. It feels great to be right. In fact there’s some research that shows that being right gives us a little endorphin rush. Try it now. Imagine a situation in which you knew you were right, especially with a situation that had some emotional charge. As you think about it, see if you can sense how that feels in your body. Are you sitting up straighter? Have any of your muscles contracted or do you feel an internal lift? You may feel it differently, but often when we're right, we get some sense of firmness, strength or constriction, or even a little buzz.   Now try thinking of a time when you were wrong, also around a situation that had some emotional charge. Can you sense how being wrong feels in your body? Is there a sensation of slumping or deflation, or even of shame or vulnerability?   The wonderful, and of course, obvious thing about being right or wrong is recognizing which state gives us access to our deeper capacity to learn, to change and be changed. We don't learn or grow very much when we’re hardened or constricted by our loyalty to our rightness. But when we're wrong and more vulnerable, there’s a softening and even a surrendering. We are much more permeable. And from within this permeability we learn and grow.   As we are reminded this week of the necessity for tolerance and nonviolence, may we all learn to care for ourselves, each other and our communities just a little bit more.
  • “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”       Martin Luther King, Jr.
    Here we are again in the shock and turbulent aftermath from the violence of intolerance that occurred in Paris last week.   Next week is the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday and we need to be reminded of his courage and utter insistence on the importance of non-violence, tolerance, compassion, love and his deep belief in our essential innate goodness. These teachings are ancient and timeless and we need them right now.   The Buddha taught that what gets in the way of these qualities are greed, hatred and ignorance, known as the “three poisons.” They are the cause of our individual and collective pain and suffering; greed and hatred especially.   Greed is easy to see outside of ourselves, but more difficult to see inside. It’s difficult to come face-to-face with the myriad ways desire and wanting keep us running on the gerbil wheel. It can be blatantly obvious or amazingly subtle. Because our consumer culture is pervasive and invasive, it requires steady discerning mindfulness to manage our desires, to understand them as transitory, to know what is enough, and to guide our actions.   There’s a local bakery about a block from my office that makes the perfect chewy, soft in the middle crunchy on the outside oat-cranberry-current cookie. It’s delicious, almost a meal in itself. As I walked by the bakery recently, not thinking of this cookie, not even hungry, all of a sudden my mind began telling me I wanted that cookie. First I could see it, then smell it, then even get a sense of tasting it, all from walking by the windows! I had to laugh. It was a perfect opportunity to recognize desire, feel and watch it work, and know that I had a choice about whether or not to get that cookie.  I did get the cookie and enjoyed every bite. And, it gave me a bit of a belly ache.   This is how desire and greed operate. They tell us stories we do not have to believe. The next time this happens, I hope I can just watch the desire come, tell me the story of satisfying it, and watch it go. The ability to not satisfy our momentary desires reduces reactivity and impulsivity. It’s a tiny example causing minor suffering, but suffering nonetheless. Seeing the transitory nature of things has profound implications.   Hatred or ill-will is also quite easy to see outside of ourselves, especially when it results in terror and large-scale acts of violence. We can’t miss these external expressions of discontent, fear, intolerance and anger in our communities. Internal hatred, ill-will and intolerance can be much more difficult to see.   Each time I feel aversion to whatever is happening, the way I talk to myself about it is key. If I carry on with indignation I am more likely to churn up misplaced anger which ties my mind in a knot, keeps me from seeing clearly, and if I’m not careful, acting in a less than kind manner. But if I can understand my discomfort, my dislike or my fear, I still may get angry, but I’m more likely to manage it without causing undue harm to myself or those around me.   Like greed and desire, hatred and ill-will are states of mind that come and go. The practice is to first recognize our own idiosyncratic symptoms and watch them work without getting caught. The Dalai Lama calls this the practice of internal disarmament. Managing greed and hatred is first and foremost an inside job.
    “Hatred never ends through hatred. By non-hate alone does it end. This is an ancient truth.”                The Buddha, The Dhammapada
  • Here we are, at the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It’s the turn of the year, a gentle bend in the road; a new beginning, a new view with new possibilities. It feels fresh.   I've been thinking about the many events and experiences of 2014 from the beautiful to the tragic, the glories and the failures and everything in between. It’s extraordinary what happens on any given day in any of our lives, let alone a whole year. As I consider what it takes just to manage my own life and then multiply that by 7 billion people around that planet, not to mention all of the non-human living beings, the amount of life lived everywhere in every moment is mindboggling.   It’s a lovely practice to pause, marking endings and beginnings, to catch our breath. As you remember some of your own experiences of the last year, what stands out? What was it like? The joys and sorrows, the successes and difficulties, the ways you've changed and have been changed.   As we move forward into the New Year, once again settling into the ground of our lives as the days begin to lengthen and the frenzy of the holidays has past, it’s a natural time for renewing or setting some intentions. Not resolutions, intentions.  It’s like moving towards the horizon, taking one step at a time with the patience, curiosity and courage to see and feel what’s here on this day, in this moment. We make adjustments as we go, yet we keep the horizon in sight.   Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center was once asked,
    “Roshi, what’s the most important thing?” and he answered, “To find out what’s the most important thing.”
    How do we want to live? We make this choice every day. And we need a little help.   Central to Buddhist practice is what is known as “taking refuge,” refuge in the sense of both resting in and living from a place of safety, support and clarity, and a place that stimulates and nurtures our growth. Traditionally,  one formally takes refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha as an aspect of practice that re-affirms one’s commitment to the practice through chant, spoken word or silently . Some people take refuge every time they sit, others at periodic intervals. The New Year is a wonderful time to be reminded of this practice.   Taking refuge in the Buddha does not mean to worship or idolize the literal historical figure of the Buddha. But rather to recognize that like the Buddha, we too, have the capacity to access and cultivate our very real innate wisdom, compassion and good heart. We can live a more skillful life by not adding undue suffering to an already complex and challenging life. This is what is thought of as waking up, and like the Buddha, we can do it, too.   The Dharma is classically defined as the teachings of the Buddha. But dharma itself is simply the way things are, the truth of how it is. So we take refuge in the Dharma through our practice of training ourselves to see our lives as they are.   The Sangha is our community; our family, our friends and our spiritual communities, those groups that provide fundamental support. Whether you practice meditation with others, belong to a synagogue, mosque or church, ride your bike or paddle your kayak with friends each week, this is your sangha and perhaps the most important of the three refuges.  We are undeniably interconnected and we need each other to thrive.   Another Japanese Zen teacher and contemporary of Suzuki Roshi, Kobun Chino Roshi said,
    “The more you sense the rareness and value of your own life, the more you realize that how you use it, how you manifest it, is all your responsibility. We face such a big task, so naturally such a person sits down for a while.”
    And so we begin again. We come back to the cushion, to our practice, to ourselves, to the ground of our being to discover the most important thing. We take the gentle turn, see the horizon and settle in.
  • Earlier this month I spent a week in a silent meditation retreat. I try to do this a couple of times each year. No work, no errands, no cooking, no decisions, and no conversations; just practice, lots of practice. People often comment that the idea of not talking for a week seems impossible, even insane. For me, it’s a luxury and profoundly sane. My mind is so busy talking to me that not talking to others is a relief. Of course there’s always the internal chatter, but as the days go by, even it quiets down and has less to say. And that is truly luxurious.   We’re all like this. We’re so busy in our daily lives that we hardly notice the constant stimulus and input until we stop. Really stop. That’s when we can hear just how much is going on, how loud it is, and just how much energy it requires to manage it all.  Meditation is the beautiful hard work of doing nothing so we can see, feel and hear what’s actually here.   Over the years, I’ve noticed retreats have a certain flavor or theme that emerges on its own. Some are calm and quiet, some energizing and inspiring, some are annoying and challenging, and some are just plain boring; all facets of the mind itself. Typically, each retreat has moments of all of these. This retreat was especially stormy. My mind was all over the place, replaying story after difficult story, truly a broken record. It felt like a sticky, thorny nest of Velcro where the thoughts and stories were tangled into a knotted mess.   In Buddhist practice, the regular and normal thought storms that blow in and blow out are known as The Eight Worldly Winds or The Eight Vicissitudes of Life. I love the word vicissitudes. It perfectly describes these storms. They include
    • Praise & Blame
    • Gain & Loss
    • Pleasure & Pain
    • Conceit & Shame
    The repetitive stories hijacking my mind included all of these. It was a whirlwind of sadness and anger, fear and excitement, pride and embarrassment, happiness and contentment, on and on and on. Just like life.   And then I remembered a comment a meditation teacher once said in passing. “You know, nothing is worth thinking about.” When I heard this, I wondered how nothing could be worth thinking about. But then I got it. Nothing, as a pronoun, is worth thinking about. Perhaps this was my ticket out of the thorny nest. So I spent a fair amount of time contemplating nothing and nothingness, and slowly my mind calmed down and began to unwind.   Here’s a lovely piece I recently read from the Zen teacher, Karen Maezen Miller in her book Paradise in Plain Sight.
                   “These days I want nothing more than to enter an empty room with a group of strangers and sit still and quiet in samadhi, nondistracted awareness, for the better part of a day. I am always astonished by the presence of people who would dare to do such a thing – burn perfectly good daylight to get nothing done.   To take responsibility for peace in your world is genuinely heroic. Practicing meditation can be hard on your stiff body and restless mind, but it does not hurt anyone. No one is harmed by your practice; indeed, everyone is helped. When you are still, no eyebrows are arched, no fists are clenched, no fingers are tapped, no sideways glances are given. When you are quiet, nothing mean, cruel, or critical is said. We have the power to transform everything when we have the courage to do nothing.”
    Let this sink in. “To take responsibility for peace in your world is genuinely heroic” and “We have the power to transform everything when we have the courage to do nothing.” Try it sometime, perhaps especially now with the busyness of the holidays, the ending of one year and moving into the new one.   Sit down, relax as best you can, feel your breath coming and going, and imagine nothing. Hang out with nothing. Feel nothing. Not numb-out, but feel the texture of nothing. And for the moment, be nothing. This is courageously making peace and transforming everything.
  • On the back of the interior door that separates the laundromat from the supply room is a black bumper sticker that reads “Do No Harm” in big white block letters. I sometimes wonder if our employees actually see it and think about its intention, or if it’s one of those signs that they see so often it becomes invisible. I hope not.   Some years ago I got stuck in a conversation with a man sitting next to me on a long flight; I was in the middle seat, of course. Not long into the flight I caught his sideways glance as he noticed I was reading a book about Buddhist practice. I couldn't help but glance back and noticed him reading a book about Christianity.  I didn't give it much thought until he said “So you're a Buddhist.” Looking up I said “No, I’m just reading this book.” I tried to leave it at that, but he wanted to talk. “Well, if you're not a Buddhist, and you're reading a Buddhist book, what are you?” I wish I'd been quick, clever and polite enough to say something that would have ended the conversation, but instead I took the bait. “I'm Jewish and interested in Buddhist practice.” Oy vey.   This began his very long exhortation that as a devout Christian white man he understands the plight of the Jews around the world along with all of the other oppressed people from Africa. I don't think my jaw was visibly on the floor, but given that I was stuck in the middle seat for two more hours, I decided to listen and see if I could understand his way of thinking.   At some point he began talking about God and compassion. That intentionally harming another person under the guise of teaching a lesson, as in “an eye for an eye” even if it wasn't he who was harmed, is true compassion.  And that is when I suggested that we have very different views, and offered to change the subject. No dice. As he continued, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and I calmly interrupted him and said “Sir, this conversation is over.” Yes, I called him Sir. He looked at me as if I’d hurt his feelings. I thanked him and went back to reading my book.   When I was in 8th grade in 1973, I played the part of a nurse in the musical production of South Pacific. I can still remember most of the words to most of the songs. The story explores issues of racial prejudice as romances develop between an American nurse and a middle-aged French expatriate plantation owner and father of mixed-race children, as well as a U.S. lieutenant and a young Asian woman.  The recent murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner reminded me of the song “You've Got to be Taught.” I vividly remember learning this song for the show and not knowing how to respond. Here are the lyrics.   You've got to be taught To hate and fear, You've got to be taught From year to year, It's got to be drummed In your dear little ear You've got to be carefully taught.   You've got to be taught to be afraid Of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade, You've got to be carefully taught.   You've got to be taught before it's too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You've got to be carefully taught!   We are still taught to fear, to demean, to judge and to hate. The deaths of black men (and even a twelve year old boy with a pellet gun in Cleveland last week) at the hands of white policemen who are not held accountable is shocking. Or is it?   Can we finally wake up and look into the painful, complex and deeply ingrained culture of racism, fear and intolerance in this country? Can we recognize how it both affects and comes out in each of us? It’s startling and frightening to see and acknowledge the ways we reject one another, the ways we cause harm both intentionally and unintentionally. We know that violence begets violence, that hatred begets hatred, and ignorance certainly begets ignorance.   It’s time for each one of us to study the meaning of “Do No Harm,” courageously say “It stops with me,” and give new meaning to NIMBY. Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland are indeed in our back yards.
  • I recently spent the morning rowing on Humboldt Bay with two dear friends in perfect conditions; flat water, no wind, sun shining and so much birdlife. Even the seals were curiously poking their heads up alongside our boats to check us out. Mornings like this are full of connection and belonging. They’re the threads that weave and bind us to ourselves, to our families and friends, and to our communities and the natural world. It’s the stuff of spiritual practice.   In our meditation groups, we show up week after week to sit together, to practice together. None of us could do this without the other. Our practice depends on it. We could actually say that our lives depend on it, because they do. I depend on my weekly groups as one of the core supports for my life. Whatever our practice is, whether it’s in a formal setting, out in nature, reading a book, listening to music, talking with a friend, making a meal, it feeds our spirits and we can’t do it alone. We might we think we can, but for practice to really flourish, we need each other.   Each week in class our meditation practices include both mindfulness (insight) and metta, the practice of intentionally inclining the mind and heart towards goodwill and kindness. Another translation of metta comes from the British scholar John Peacock who says metta is “to grow fat with friendliness.” I love the images I get when I think of it like this. Even though we may think of mindfulness and metta as separate practices, in reality they are two sides of the same coin.  Mindfulness is inherently kind, and being kind is by nature mindful, and like our relationships, they need each other to flourish.   Give it a try. Can you be kind without being mindful? When you are mindful is this not kind? It just doesn’t work because the intention is ultimately the same; to have a balanced clarity of mind and heart, and cultivate a soft resilience that allows us to engage our lives skillfully and wisely without rancor or contention. Yet being realistic, rancor and contention are inevitable, but with practice, we catch it earlier and don’t get as tangled up in its stickiness as we might otherwise. In fact, the Dalai Lama talks about these practices as “the process of internal disarmament.”   Mindfulness and kindness are intimately and inextricably linked. When we intentionally direct our lives towards kindness and awareness, our connections deepen and our sense of belonging grows.    A Rabbit Noticed My Condition  I was sad one day and went for a walk; I sat in a field. A rabbit noticed my condition and Came near.   It often does not take more than that to help at times-   To just be close to creatures who Are so full of knowing, So full of love That they don’t -chat,   They just gaze with their Marvelous understanding.   -St. John of the Cross
  • Going up the stairs to my house with my arms full of groceries and eager to spend the afternoon cooking, I suddenly found myself sprawled out on the stairs, food strewn across the wet garage floor, the dog confused and frightened. I heard the sick tearing crunching sound of my ankle rolling beneath me as I fell. The pain was searing and it took a long time before I could get up. There went my afternoon, and here I am five days later still icing, elevating, barely walking and trying not to be too grumpy.   I’ve been extremely busy the last couple of months, unsustainably busy. I’ve known this was the week when everything would begin to settle and I’d start to catch my breath. But I didn’t anticipate going from overload to splat in an instant. A friend sent me a note the other day saying she, too, needed a break. I encouraged her to make the time now before God did it for her.   Sitting on the couch for long periods opens up lots of time for noticing pain, boredom, discomfort, frustration, helplessness, appreciation, quiet, contentment and even happiness. Hanging out with all of this has given me ample opportunity to work with last week’s practice of RAIN.  Here’s one rendition that emerged:   “I can’t walk. My ankle hurts. I feel impatient.” - Recognition   “I fell. I cancelled a lot of commitments. I need time to heal.” –Acceptance   “The pain is throbbing. Asking for so much help is challenging. Being taken care of is comforting” –Investigation   “The floor was wet. The groceries were heavy. I lost my balance.”  -Not Taking it Personally   This sounds simplistic and rational, I know. But implementing the practice is not always easy or accessible. I’ve had many moments of impatience and self-pity over the last few days, and still do. Each time that almost whining voice comes out, I find it a little easier to hear, especially when it’s accompanied by that look from my husband. If I can just take a breath and relax, my look back to him says “Okay, okay. You’re right. I know. Thank you for reminding me.” These pithy places for practicing patience have a way of showing up just when we need them. And it helps to have a few good movies around, too.
     “Every day, at the moment when things get edgy we can just ask ourselves ‘Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?’”                   Pema Chödrön
  • Our feet made that squishy sound as my dog, Olive and I walked across the yard to empty the rain gauge this morning. Blessed rain, well over an inch.  I’ve been emptying the rain gauge frequently lately with such relief for what just may be an almost normal amount of autumn rainfall. I don’t really know if it’s normal, but whatever amount of rain we get, we need.  And I’m grateful for muddy feet, mine and the dog’s.   It’s been a crazy busy fall; packed tight with work, school, teaching and writing requiring as much of me as I can muster. I cannot remember another time like this, except perhaps the earliest years of my children’s lives who arrived just sixteen months apart. That, too, required everything of me.   This is a cycle, of course, and it will change. Some days are more difficult than others, and it’s certainly nothing to take personally. It’s simply what’s happening because other things are happening. Yet it’s easy to fall in the gutter of wanting things to be different, and struggle with the stickiness of contention; like stepping in soft already-been-chewed bubble gum that sticks to the ground and the bottom of my shoe with each step. I cannot get free until I stop, check out the problem, and deliberately peel the gum from my shoe even if it means getting some dirty, icky gum under my fingernails.   From the perspective of mindfulness, everything we experience is okay because mindfulness includes the full range of our experiences. Whatever is happening is happening. What we do about it is another story.  So how do we manage those times that feel unmanageable? How do we tame the automatic not-so-helpful reactions of the mind on overload and come back to balance?   In Buddhist practice, the acronym RAIN stands for
    • Recognize
    • Accept or Acknowledge
    • Investigate
    • Non-Identification or Not Taking Things Personally
      RAIN is a regular and reliable form of practice that allows us to see things for what they are and work with them with skill and wisdom.   When we’re caught in reactivity of any kind, from the most painful to the most exuberant thoughts or emotions, recognition of these states themselves is the first step. We pause long enough to see what’s there. Sometimes we can’t identify what’s happening, but with time and repeated exposure to whatever mind state presents itself, we get to know it and recognize it for what it is.   The next step is accepting or acknowledging their reality, not in the sense of accepting something as okay that clearly isn’t, but by acknowledging “Okay, this is how it is.” (I prefer acknowledge to accept. It seems more pertinent to the intent of the practice.) Once we recognize what’s what, it’s easier to make space for the thoughts or emotions by loosening the grip of contention around whatever is present.   We can then investigate how these states actually feel in the body, mind and heart; be it frustration, anger, anxiety, excitement, joy or contentment. They all land somewhere. The practice is to be willing, curious and sometimes even courageous enough to really investigate how they feel. It’s hard to willingly step into a messy, gooey pot of resentment. But when we do, we often find that the intensity and volume of the emotion or the repetitive story line quiets. And even if they don’t, we still may gain a little more insight into their nature and how they affect us.   Lastly, when we get to know how varying mind states feel, we often see how reliably they change. Things happen because other things happen. One thing leads to another and then another carrying with it associated thoughts and emotions. It’s from this direct experience of R-A-I that we understand N, non-identification or not taking things personally. It’s not about me. It’s just what’s happening. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make skillful choices to change things in wise ways, but it allows us to get out of the center of our own stories, broadening our perspective.   As we move into the darkest time of year, I hope the rain keeps falling, that my workload lightens, and that RAIN will continue to help me manage what comes.
  • Every six weeks or so, we have a staff meeting for our employees, typically at dinner time so we can share a meal together. It’s usually pizza or burritos, their favorites. These meetings are a time to talk through operational issues, connect with one another, and solve problems better served through open conversation, brainstorming, and consensus. Everyone is invited to add agenda items that we incorporate as we go.   Traditionally each meeting begins with a question we all answer in round-robin fashion that has nothing to do with working at the store. It’s a personal reflection question that either my business partner or I asks, sometimes thought up right then. We then facilitate the conversation and the balance of the meeting.   A few months ago I decided to ask “What makes you come alive? What are you passionate about?” Just before this particular meeting, Jesse, a 20-year old college student and steady reliable employee, took me aside. Jesse had something to tell everyone and wanted to do it first thing. Curious, I asked if it was something that would change the tone or direction of the meeting, and when told yes, I asked what it was so I could decide whether or not to honor the request. When I learned what it was, I decided not to let Jesse go first. I know from many years of facilitating these meetings the importance of maintaining leadership and control by carefully and purposefully steering the group process, yet with enough flexibility for spontaneity.   Like all meetings, we started with dinner. There was a lot of laughter and ease and as we all finished, I began by asking the question. We all went around, shared our answers and by chance, Jesse was last and said, “I want you all to know that I no longer identify as a girl. I identify as a guy. I will soon be starting the process of changing my gender, and I want you all to know. I also want to say that I know it’s going to be hard for you to use male pronouns when referring to me and I won’t judge you when you get it wrong. It’s just part of the process. And I want to say that there’s no way I could be telling you this if it weren’t for such a safe working environment. I couldn’t ask for better employers.”   It was an astonishing moment. I was so moved by his courage. Not only did the staff completely take it in stride saying things like “Oh yeah, I have a friend whose done this,” and “Oh, okay, thanks for letting us know,” and “I can hook you up with a great resource on campus,” but the fact that we have been committed to providing a safe and dignified work environment from the outset, had come home in a direct and powerful way. It was one of my proudest moments of 25 years as an employer and business owner. It was a moment of realization of what is possible when the components of mindfulness are put into action as a regular and normal way of being.   And it was a moment. I am under no illusion that our work is never done; that supporting and maintaining this kind of workplace culture requires diligence and awareness, determination and love.

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