On Purpose

  • On Purpose

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

  • This week's contribution comes from my friend and colleague Justin Wall (Lama Karma). Enjoy!  In many ways, the Mindfulness Movement is being established as a new lineage of the Buddhadharma.  This lineage is by and large a product of various Asian lineages of Buddhism meeting modern Euro-American culture.  Whether it is through the lens of science, consumerism, psychology, or any of the other important narratives of our culture, Mindfulness is the modern response to and interpretation of the various Asian manifestations of the Buddhadharma.   This meeting is delicate business, to say the least, and there is much to say about how this may and may not go well, but these issues are in many ways reflective of the broader meeting of East and West, of the challenges and opportunities of globalization.  This is a unique time in human history where all of the cultural inheritances of the world are present to one another, and we are for the first time able to envision a truly representative global awareness, cognizant of a global unity in the midst of limitless diversity.   The Mindfulness Movement is a symptom of globalization, but it is also uniquely poised to be a major catalyst for globalization in a way that can be a far more sustainable and nourishing force than global economics, politics, media, and technology alone.  Because behind all of these forces are people, and fundamental to any person is their mind.  Mind is fundamental to all experience, and in a certain light, it is the basis of reality itself. Training the mind to be more focused, compassionate, unbiased, and open is to train people to reflect those same qualities, thereby affecting the whole global network of relations.   When mindfulness is brought into the global marketplace, global politics, technology and so forth, these pre-existing global forces can accelerate their connectivity and ingenuity while at the same time become more sustainable and less harmful. But beyond simply imbuing existing globalized aspects of culture with the qualities of mindfulness, Mindfulness itself engenders a global awareness by connecting one to an essential and universal aspect of human experience.   I am fully aware of the risks of essentializing “Mind,” or of “The Dharma,” of passing it through some sort of clinical filter in order to extract its essence, while actually only serving to confirm the presuppositions of the filter itself.  This is a recurring theme of what has been called “Protestant Buddhism,” and part of the discourse of “Buddhist Modernism.”  And I am also wary of celebrating some sort of universal aspect of mind, a core truth that is relevant across lineages and cultures, and is reflective of a universal human truth.  This perennialism is itself a culturally situated agenda, in many ways growing out of Romanticism’s reaction to the defects of scientific materialism.  Its contemporary manifestations are evident in the distortions of the New Age movement.   But as it is said, “concepts divide, experience gathers,” and when we sit down to practice, when we sit and create a space of awareness with other practitioners, there is an indisputable attunement, a resonance, a communal experience that is validated again and again in personal and interpersonal experience.  It is this shared experience of attending to one’s awareness with attention and an open heart that will have the power to connect individuals across cultures, as well as express the connections that already exist.   It is in this light that my friend Lama Denys Rinpoche, the founder of the “Open Mindfulness Network,” one of the largest European mindfulness foundations, is in the process of proposing mindfulness as “An Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” for recognition by the United Nations through UNESCO.  This will no doubt be a landmark in the emergence of the Mindfulness movement, but also in the process of ensuring the sustainable emergence of a lineage of global consciousness itself.  Justin Wall (Lama Karma) has over seven years of teaching experience, both as a facilitator of Mindfulness training and in more traditional contexts.  He graduated with honors from Columbia University with degrees in English Literature and Religious Studies and completed two three-year retreats in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  He is currently finishing a year-long Certification in Mindfulness Facilitation course through the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.  www.marc.ucla.edu.  He lives in semi-retreat and is the resident teacher and director of a retreat center in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. www.mocd.org and facilitates mindfulness through Clear Light Mindfulness.www.clearlightmindfulness.com 
  • The other day I was walking on the beach with a dear friend who in recent months had lost a considerable amount of weight. She was both startled and excited when she realized that all of her pants were suddenly way too big. It was a peculiar feeling; one of tenuous pride, success, and satisfaction that came with a sense of fear and unfamiliarity with her own body. Everything looked new and different and unknown.   The morning was crisp and clear, the calm ocean sparkling in the sunlight, the vast beach nearly empty. Perfectly beautiful. At some point a man passed us going the other way and as he approached, my friend said “At least he won’t think I’m fat.” We both came to a stand-still, stunned at what she’d just said, recognizing the painful depths from where that came. It didn’t matter that I think she’s always been perfectly beautiful. It didn’t matter that her husband of many years sees her perfect beauty in everything about her, including the roundness of her belly and puckers on her thighs. It didn’t matter. The ancient voice of doubt and self-criticism was alive and well rearing its ugly head.   In Buddhist lore, Mara is the tempter, the one who personifies unskillful and unwholesome impulses, the evil one. Mara is the one who does everything he can to convince the Buddha to give up his quest for awakening. As the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree determined to meditate until he became enlightened, Mara sent his three daughters to seduce him and try to break his concentration. With each temptation and distraction, the Buddha said “Mara, I see you. I am not afraid.” Finally, it is said that when the Buddha became enlightened, Mara was swept away by a great flood.   But the Buddha’s awakening wasn’t the end of Mara. He appears over and over again in the Buddha’s life because like us, the Buddha was human. And like us, he faced the challenges of living a human life.   In our contemporary culture, Mara is the internalized voice of our conditioning that keeps us stuck in the grips of our old stories, the ones that bind us and shut us down. Recognizing Mara is tool for looking at the parts of our lives that scare us, hinder us, deter us, confuse us, and keep us from believing and trusting in our innate goodness and wisdom. The truth that we are valuable, lovable and precious just as we are, that we have enormous capacities to grow and change and flourish for our whole lives is at the heart of our practice.   When the voices of doubt, fear, confusion or self-judgment surface, try saying to yourself “Mara, I see you.” It really may help you see things for what they are and quiet the storyline before it hijacks you completely. If you can also say “I am not afraid,” because in this moment you are actually not afraid your clarity and courage will kick Mara’s ass.  
    Watching the moon, At dawn, Solitary, mid-sky, I knew myself completely: No part left out.   Isumi Shikibu A thousand years ago from a woman in Japan
  • I'm excited to announce that beginning today, On Purpose will have periodic guest contributors. I hope you will enjoy these new and different voices and find them valuable.

    With warmth,  Heidi

    Start where you are Use what you have Do what you can
    Words of mindfulness: being present with some kind of intention, bringing a sense of awareness that is open, trying to “be here now.”  Yet knowing what a seemingly simple idea this is, we also know of its challenge and complexity, that being present can be a courageous act of faith.   These words were first spoken by a man whose actual presence was courageous, Arthur Ashe. He was the first black American player on the US Davis Cup Team and the only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open. He later gained notoriety as one of the first professional athletes to contract and die of HIV/AIDS.  This also forced him out of the closet as a gay man.   In July of this year, we were reminded of this quote by Michael Sam as he accepted the Arthur Ashe ESPY Courage Award.
    Start where you are Use what you have Do what you can
    This, he says, is courage. And Michael Sam, was receiving the award for being the first openly gay college football player. When you listen to him talk, you feel his presence, his openness, that he has a pure heart. And yet he says he was simply choosing to just be himself, to stop trying to stop the feelings in his heart, to stop telling the stories that had become lies.   The second time he broke through the homophobia barrier was when he was finally called in the professional NFL draft, after his college playing days had ended. He was the 267th  draft pick, a number that if he had not shown up as himself, had kept his sexuality to himself, probably would have been chosen sooner. And probably would have had a more financially lucrative deal with the NFL. In the moment he got the call, he was simply there; so full of joy and relief he turned and planted a celebratory kiss on his boyfriend Vito’s lips. The pure hearted lion, once again. Just showing up, bringing what he had, doing what he could.   In our daily lives we often need to have such courage. It might be to prepare for a job interview, or to stand up and present to a group of people, it might just be to get out of bed.   So, when Michael Sam acknowledged Arthur Ashe’s words when accepting the Courage Award, he reminds us, especially our LGBTQI same gender loving friends and family and people of color, “To anyone out there – especially young people – feeling like they don’t fit in and will never be accepted, please know this: great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself.”   And in our mindfulness practice, as we begin a meditation, as we face our lives with presence, these words are so simple, yet carry so much truth. They can help us be courageous.
    Start where you are Use what you have Do what you can
         Cary Virtue has been practicing mindfulness meditation since 2008. In 2012 he participated in the Commit to Dharma program with Larry Yang at the East Bay Meditation Center and is currently enrolled in the Certification in Mindfulness Facilitation program at UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. His work as a Peace Corps Volunteer doing HIV/AIDS prevention in Malawi, Central Africa, inspired him to get his Masters in Public Health, and he has worked the past 20 years in the field of preventive health and wellness.Contact Cary at [email protected]
  • It’s easy to be frightened, to feel cynical, to judge and criticize, to feel envy or jealousy, and to generally drop into a place of contention without even noticing. Our culture gives us nonstop messages of needing things to be other. It keeps us seeking the next best thing, rarely supporting the value of stopping and enjoying what is already here right now, as it is.   Rick Hansen, the neuropsychologist and author of The Buddha’s Brain, and Hardwiring Happiness, teaches that the brain has a natural negativity bias. It’s like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. Our basic survival instinct recognizes and hooks into danger much more quickly than it recognizes and hooks into peace, joy, love and the general sense that things are actually alright. But we can change this because the brain is very flexible.   The Buddha said “what one frequently thinks and ponders upon will become the inclination of the mind.” For me, I know that if I keep playing the worn out tape of an old painful relationship, what happened, what didn’t happen, I’ll get stuck in the sticky gooey rut of the story. I’ll likely become sad or resentful, angry or hurt all over again. The repetitive thoughts themselves will strengthen the imprint of the memory in my brain making the difficult feelings easy to access, easy feel, cloud my mind and lead nowhere good. I’ve heard it said that repetitive thoughts are a dead end, and it doesn’t take much rumination to know this is true. When I can recognize those dead-end thought loops, I can more easily stop the habitual thought pattern, recognize it for what it is, and avoid replaying the old hurt.   The bright shining spot here is that the same is true for good memories, good thoughts, and positive experiences; those that nurture and support our well-being and bring happiness. They, too, imprint in the memory. When we deliberately look for the good, take in and recognize joy, happiness, love, a sense of things being alright, we direct the mind towards well-being. When we intentionally take the time to let in it and soak it up, we reinforce the neural pathways in the brain that support our sense of happiness.   As these new habit patterns take root and grow, we have greater and easier access to our own innate capacity to feel joy. Our happiness grows. And as our own happiness grows, it becomes easier and easier to feel joy for someone else’s good fortune, too. This is appreciative joy; the completely natural expression of the open, available and unobstructed heart.   And here’s a little advice from The Dalai Lama…   “It is important to understand how much your own happiness is linked to that of others. There is no individual happiness totally independent of others….If we derive happiness from the happiness of others, we have at least six billion more opportunities to be happy.”
  • In the Jewish tradition, this is the time of year for reflection, renunciation and renewal; the celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Reflecting on our lives as they are now, letting go of old hurts by seeking connection and understanding with those we love and even those we don't, and going forward into the New Year with clarity, kindness and optimism.   During these holidays, it’s traditional to wish each other the blessing of a “sweet new year” and seal it by eating apples dipped in honey. I love that. Whether I receive or offer this blessing, it always makes me feel warm and cared for, and the apples are delicious, too.   In the Buddhist tradition, Renunciation is the third of the Paramis, the perfections or beautiful aspects of the heart and mind. It follows Generosity and Morality. Sometimes we think of renunciation as giving up our luxuries and comforts, stripping down to the bare essentials of our lives into our own definitions of austerity. And there are times when this exploration can help us access and understand ourselves in new and instructive ways.   I think of renunciation as letting go of the aspects or habits in my life that really don't support my well-being. This is a cornerstone of practice; showing up for what’s there, seeing it, feeling it, understanding it. Renunciation invites a certain kind of discipline and determination to adjust, and ultimately the freedom to make clear, wise, skillful choices.   This brings us back to the Buddha’s compass question from last week. “What when I do it, will be for my long-term welfare and happiness?” Inherent in that question is this: what can I let go of or give away that will add to my clarity or benefit another? Can we see that generosity and morality are indeed facets of renunciation and that all three are mutually dependent? By committing to practicing the ethics of non-harming, we are by definition practicing renunciation.   A few years ago my husband gave me a birthday card on the front of which was a beautiful print of a Western Tanager perched on a branch, one of my favorite birds. The caption said “Look Forward Brightly.” I framed the card and it hangs above my desk so I see it every day. Whatever your tradition, I wish you a very sweet year ahead filled with care and kindness, looking forward brightly.
  • Today I want to pick up where I left off earlier this month when I wrote that true mindfulness does not afford us the luxury of camping out within the gated privacy of our own hearts and minds. Mindfulness invites and requires us bit-by-bit, to take in the full range of our experiences from the beautiful to the painful. All of it, every little bit. Joanna Macy says we’re not required to be hopeful or hopeless; we’re just required to show up.   A lot of people showed up this weekend in New York City for the People’s Climate March, more than 300,000. I imagine some were hopeful and some were not. But they were there, there demanding action on climate change, willing to see things as they are. Most of us who weren’t there also know how things are. In California, we’re in a horrendous drought and fires are burning throughout the state. The rivers are drying up which means the fish will die. Hopeful or hopeless? Just show up? I have to choose hope and show up. It’s just much too frightening to be hopeless and hide.   The Buddha taught that Right or Wise Action is action rooted in non-harming of ourselves and others, and this includes our environment. If you’d like the five specific guidelines that support non-harming, check out the post from August 30th, Ferguson. Lately,I’ve especially been thinking about the last guideline; maintaining a clear mind by not using substances that cause heedlessness. Does this include fossil fuels? Or the way we use water? Does it include the media? How about the food we eat? How does what we take in and what we use affect our thinking, decisions and actions?   I don’t know how to stop using fossil fuels. Everything needs to change in order to do that; our entire orientation to our lives, our habits and understanding about the consequences and impact of our actions. That will require a seismic shift. But I can try. And I can stop letting the water run down the drain while I brush my teeth. I’ve done that for years. I can also stop watching the news, checking Facebook or reading the New York Times first thing in the morning. All three cloud my mind with tragedy, violence and greed leaving me scared and sometimes numb. They do not support my well-being which certainly affects the well-being of those around me.   A guideline from the Buddha that does support my well-being is “What when I do it will be for my long-term welfare and happiness?” I love this question because it lets me access my innate wisdom and take wise action. I choose to believe that given a choice, most of us will not make decisions that intentionally cause harm. It takes a lot of mindfulness to keep this question alive, and it makes me hopeful.
  • Last week when I ran into a friend at the farmers’ market, she said “Wow, I haven’t seen you in such a long time! Where’ve you been? Some other country?”  I hadn’t been, but in some ways it felt as if I had.  I live in a very progressive small town in northern California, and I had just returned from visiting family in a very conservative small town in Wisconsin - in fact it was recently rated by Business Insider the most conservative in the state.

    It’s a lovely setting along Lake Michigan; the cottage at the end of the wooded gravel road sitting just a few steps from the beach, the lake’s vast horizon, the endless color changes and the perpetual gentle shushing of the water on the shore.  In the summertime, family dinners on the screen porch are the norm with at least ten of us at most meals, from grandchildren to grandparents along with any neighbor who happens to wander by. The conversation commonly includes the latest news of friends, the varying health ailments at the table, and the on-going efforts to maintain some semblance of a beachfront in the face of unstoppable natural forces. Eventually, the conversation always circles around to politics, and we tenderly avoid the galaxy-sized black holes between our views.

    During dinner on the day of our arrival, my mother-in-law, sitting at the head of the table, made a very matter-of-fact comment about skinheads in Idaho. I, equally matter-of-factly, said I thought there also were a lot of libertarians in Idaho. Without skipping a beat, my father-in-law reared back from the opposite end of the table and said “Hey! Wait a minute! I’m a libertarian. So you think I’m a skinhead?” Oops. “That’s it!” said my mother-in-law in her incisive let’s-keep-the-peace voice, instantly putting a stop to the conversation. And that was the end of that, until about five days later.

    It was a tranquil and beautiful morning walk along the paved cattail-lined path, ponds on either side, and in the distance the biggest American flag imaginable waving high above everything; each stripe alone was 13 feet high. I’d never seen anything like it. My father-in-law was talking with my husband about the growing Muslim population in the community, Islamic laws and customs, and the general culture of fear around Muslims that was spreading far and wide. I decided to keep my mouth shut, stay out of trouble, enjoy the scenery and just listen.  A little walking meditation - just walk and listen, I thought, breathe, walk and listen.

    I was feeling pretty proud of myself for keeping quiet, a little lost in my own thoughts, when my father-in-law turned to me and said “And you called me a skinhead the other day.” In a heartbeat, I felt myself take a breath as I gingerly and steadily stepped into the morass. I started by apologizing for giving him the wrong impression with my leap from skinhead to libertarian, and assured him that I do not think of him as a white supremacist hate-monger. I was relieved when he accepted my apology with a tip of his head and slight smile. Then he asked me if I knew that Webster’s defines him as a heathen – as someone who does not believe in God. “Maybe you don’t have to believe in Webster’s.” I said, and got a bigger smile.

    As we walked, he talked more about libertarianism and the Constitution, baiting me to challenge his way of thinking. It was clear that neither one of us really wanted to cross the great divide to the other’s side of the galaxy; but this is my husband’s father, my children’s grandfather, a man I’ve known for 30 years, and I love him. So I stopped, looked him in the eye and said, “You know, we’re so loyal to our opinions. How would it be if we suspend our loyalties long enough to ask ‘Would you be willing to tell me what you mean by that?’ Can we talk with each other with curiosity and let our knee-jerk assumptions go for the moment?” “Of course you and I can do that,” he said, “but the rest of the world can’t.”  “Well,” I said, “let’s just you and I try.” He looked at me a little quizzically and I said, “You know that mindfulness stuff I was telling you about? The stuff I teach? This is how it works.” And in that moment, something between us shifted and softened, leaving both of us feeling a little triumphant.

    For the rest of the visit we didn’t talk about politics or anything else too controversial. On the quiet early morning of our departure as we said good-bye, this lovely man of 82 looked at me, gave me a hug and said “We did good, didn’t we?”






  • It’s so easy to limit the definition of mindfulness to an avenue towards finding inner peace and well-being. While that’s true, it doesn’t end there.
    The requirement of true mindfulness does not afford us the luxury of camping out within the gated privacy of our own hearts and minds. It requires us to include what’s happening outside of ourselves, and little-by-little, that means everything.
    So today I am writing about the difficult and painful, about a different kind of climate disruption. Think of Michael Brown, James Foley and Trayvon Martin, that so many marginalized people only have access to the worst food, the dirtiest water, substandard education and healthcare, run-down homes (if they have homes at all), that our prisons are bursting with unprecedented numbers of young African American men, the militarization of our police, that racial profiling is real, and I cannot leave out the polar bears, butterflies and bees.
    When I think about the myriad causes and conditions that were present for Michael Brown to have been killed in Ferguson, I can imagine the fear, pain, distrust, anger and resentment that created a big gaping wound of profound suffering. As I’ve watched the footage of the protests, the wound is obvious and palpable. No imagination is necessary. When we see this kind of pain, really take it in, we cannot unsee it. How it got there is probably ancient and not such ancient history; traceable and untraceable, knowable and unknowable.
    In light of these terrifying and deeply disturbing events, I want to talk about morality from the Buddhist perspective. This perspective gives me hope and it gives me something I can do. It helps to transform my sense of helplessness and restores my balance. I’m not giving you a lecture in morality, I promise.
    In Buddhist practice there are lists for everything. The Paramis, translated as the Perfections of the Heart is one such list. Generosity is the first and Morality is next. Morality is also addressed directly through Wise Action in the Eightfold Path, another foundational list. The bottom line is that we’re asked to live a life of non-harming, but how we define non-harming is different from one person to the next, from one community to the next, and from country to the next.
    Here are the five guidelines the Buddha taught for lay practitioners like us that define non-harming, and set the intention for living a moral life.
    1.       Protect life by not killing anything that breathes
    2.     Be generous with our resources and do not taking anything that hasn’t been freely or directly given
    3.     Respect our bodies by not using sexuality in a way that harms or exploits ourselves or others
    4.     Take care in how we speak to others, guiding our language to be kind, truthful, useful and appropriate. Having good timing may be the most crucial of all. How many times have we said something truthful, useful and kind, but our timing was so off that what we said had nowhere to land or caused unintended consequences?
    5.     Maintaining a clear mind by not using substances to the extent that it causes heedlessness
    What I appreciate about these guidelines is that they’re offered as a practice. Perfection is not required. The Buddha also points out through these guidelines that by protecting myself, I protect others and by protecting others, I protect myself. This, too, is a practice that’s worth thinking about.
    I am under no illusion that by trying to live a moral life that violence, racism, and poverty will end. But if I end it in me, and you end it in you, we’ll have a little more peace.
  • Nearly 20 years ago my nieces Zoe and Marlee came to visit us in rural northern California from their home in suburban Chicago. At the time they were little girls, ages 5 and 3, and our kids were 6 and 7, so it was a full house of fun little kids. One night as we sat down for dinner I asked everyone to put their napkins in their laps. I’ll never forget the look on Zoe’s face, age 5, when she looked me square in the eye and stated clearly and emphatically “We don’t put napkins in laps in my neighborhood!”

    * * * * * * *

    Last week I played a new card game with 34 other mindfulness teachers and facilitators. We split into seven groups of five. At the outset each group was given the rules of the game, which included playing in silence, though gestures and drawing pictures were allowed. After each round of five hands, those who’d won and lost the most hands moved onto other predetermined groups, and play resumed with the newly assembled groups.

    It wasn’t long before big waves of gesturing and lots of looks of confusion and annoyance filled the room. And then the muffled laughter began to ripple out as we all realized that each of the original groups had been given varying sets of rules. The collective knowledge was unnerving, confusing, frustrating, challenging, intriguing and because it was a game, comical. One person even stood up in the middle of her group, incredulous, hands on her hips and said “They changed the f*#%@^g rules!”

    We all know that everything changes, that life is challenging for everyone, and on some level we understand that everything depends on everything else. But until we’re forced, we don’t really know it in our bones. A sudden or serious illness, the death of someone we love, an unexpected loss of a job, or the fires burning northern California this summer, these get our attention and we begin to get it. Hardship brings it close, much closer than when things are going well.

    The card game brought us all to the edge of our comfort. Issues of fairness, equality, communication, competition and culture were right there, palpable and sticky. Who was right? Was anyone wrong? How do we proceed when there is no level playing field?

    We think we know the rules, the social and emotional norms of our families, communities, and those of the wider culture.  Imagine being the only person of your skin color, heritage or gender in a crowded room with others who not only look nothing like you, but know the world from entirely different sets of guidelines. What is that like? We cannot possibly know what it’s really like for anyone else. And what about varying rules around language, money and education?

    If it were only as simple as what to do with our napkins.

  • Six or seven years ago I heard a story on the radio about a woman who saved all of the $5 bills she received in tips from her waitressing job. At the end of each shift, she dutifully put the bills in a special place for safe keeping. In the beginning, her intention was to simply save enough money to buy a CD and earn some interest in a safe and predictable way. It didn’t take her too long to buy her first one, and she realized she enjoyed the self-imposed savings challenge and that it would actually pay off. So she kept it up.
    When the first CD matured, instead of cashing it in and enjoying the added bonus of the interest it earned, she reinvested it all into a new one. And, she continued to buy new CD’s as her stash of $5 bills grew. She kept up this savings plan for a five years, and at the end had saved $12,000.
    I was so inspired by this story that I decided to take up the challenge and start saving all of my $5 bills, too. But I’m not a waitress and don’t receive cash as part of my regular compensation, so I knew my savings would be a lot smaller. When I began this savings plan, I found a special secret place in my house to keep the bills, did not tell my husband where it was, and much sooner than I expected, I had $100. 
    I will admit that over my own five years of savings, I did not invest in CD’s and turn the original $100 into $12,000. I used the money for special things like my now beloved red reading chair, airplane tickets to visit my kids, and spending money for travel.
    And then I heard the story about a woman who on her way to Berkeley from the East Coast was given a fat sealed envelope by a friend just before she left. The envelope was stuffed with $20 bills. The friend asked the woman to give the money away to the homeless people she passed on the street.
    I started to imagine what it must have been like to give those bills away, the look on people’s faces, the feeling in the hearts of both the giver and the receiver at the precise moment the money was given, whether or not they could look into each other’s eyes in recognition of their shared humanity.  And I started to think about my $5 bill stash and whether or not I could give it away.
    The Buddha gave some very pithy instructions about generosity, instructions that have really sunk into my thinking. He said generosity brings happiness in three ways: 1st, in the initial thought to be generous, 2nd, in the actual giving, and 3rd in remembering our generous acts.
    As I thought about whether or not to give the $5 bills away, I decided not to think about it for too long. My initial impulse to give the money away just felt right, and over the next couple of months I gave the bills to people on the street. While some moments were a little uncomfortable, I found it one of the more directly satisfying ways of expressing generosity. 
    My stash is gone now and I have not yet replenished it, but when I think about the experience of handing an unsuspecting person a five, it does make me happy.
  • Today, I wanted to write about peaches, mostly the unnamable pleasure and luxury of eating a melt-in-your-mouth drippy sweet peach. I wanted to write about peaches and raspberries and blueberries and strawberries and pie and sunflowers.  About the things of summer that fill my heart. I wanted to write about sweetness and joy, and the human being’s astonishing capacity to care and love, despite all odds.

    Today, I read about Gaza, Israel and Palestine, that the Colorado River Basin is drying up, that tornadoes are blazing trails through the Midwest, about the refugee crisis at the Texas-Mexico border, and the unprecedented numbers of hungry children in the US. About the other things that fill my heart.

    And today, I am reminded of the utterly reliable way mindfulness helps navigate this perpetual stream of joys and sorrows. Through increasing awareness, curiosity and the willingness to be with the complex, intricate and incomprehensible, the beautiful and tragic, we expand our tolerance and capacity to show up for it all.  

    Sitting down, feeling my feet on the ground, the breath coming and going without my interference, being with exactly what is as it is, knowing I cannot end war, fix or change the climate or the crises of social justice. But I can be courageous enough to see it. And today, that is enough.

    “The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you're worrying about whether you're hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you're showing up, that you're here and that you're finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That is what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.” 
  • I've just returned from a few days backpacking in the Russian Wilderness, a spectacular area of the Klamath National Forest. In lieu of writing this week, here's a photo of where I've been. 
    Big Duck Lake
  • This past weekend, I went to a dog trialing event called Mondioring. It’s a sport that combines obedience, agility and protection. Most of the dogs were Belgian Malinois, an incredibly strong, smart, agile, and protective breed. It was amazing to watch the intensity of focus in both the dog and the handler, and it occurs to me that dog training, mindfulness and meditation have a lot in common. All three train us in present moment awareness for the purpose of clear, skillful and appropriate response.

    My German Shepherd Dog, Olive, teaches me this every day. If I don’t keep up on her steady regular training and practice, she gets rusty and sloppy which she demonstrates beautifully by ignoring my commands. It’s a lot like my mind. When my meditation practice loses momentum or gets off track, my general level of mindfulness gets sloppy and my mind seems to ignore my commands, too!

    Just like the dog obedience basics sit, stay, heal, and down, there are basic components of mindfulness and meditation that support our practice.

    Zeal and Passion– the drive that brings us back to practice over and over again. With something as fundamentally difficult as training the mind, focusing the attention, and developing skillful response, we need zeal and passion to keep us going.

    Energy, Courage and Persistence – mindfulness and meditation practice have their normal cycles. Sometimes it’s easy, accessible, peaceful, insightful, rejuvenating and invigorating. And sometimes it’s just plain impossible, inaccessible, painful, boring, and exhausting. Finding the energy, courage and persistence to stick with it is essential to cultivating the long-term benefits of practice.

    Patience, Return, Begin Again – truly the way it is. The mind pulls us in thousands of directions and the practice is to return, again and again. It certainly requires patience, and beginning again is a relief. It doesn’t matter where we’ve been; we just come back, take a breath and begin again. The shining gem of practice is this very precise moment when we notice we’re someplace else. It’s in this moment of knowing that we are absolutely present. And then we lose it. Give yourself the gift of patience by opening the door to come back and the gentle permission to begin again.

    Investigation, Curiosity and Creativity – the fun part. Without curiosity and creativity, practice can be utterly flat. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, whether in meditation, or work, or doing the dishes, when we bring curiosity or investigation to the task, we open the doors to a wider experience. Be creative with your practice, whatever it is. Experiment.

    Some traditions have specific rules for practice. But within the tradition of mindfulness meditation there’s a lot of flexibility; noting emotions, naming thought patterns, focusing on the breath, the body or sounds, investigating whatever arises, resting in open awareness, or even metta practice. Like dog training, find a way that works for you and do it. Just sit down, breath and watch your mind.

    "Wisdom arises with practice
    Without practice, it decays. 
    Knowing this two-way path for gain and loss
    Conduct yourself so that wisdom grows."

    The Buddha, The Dhammapada, verse 282

  • Just a few days ago I was filling my tank at the gas station, the kind with two parallel banks of pumps with two pumps each, and enough space for eight cars at a time. I was on the far outside of one bank with another car on the other side of this same bank. A man in a white car on the far outside of the other bank was just finishing filling his tank when another man pulled in towing a large boat behind an even larger pickup truck, and happened to be smoking a cigarette.

    Everyone was outside of our cars when sparks started to fly. The man in the white car began yelling at the man with the boat to put his cigarette out. And, with his lit cigarette hanging loosely between his lips, the boat man thoroughly and completely ignored the yelling as it got louder and nastier, replete with extremely crude one-sided name calling. It was a fiery explosion of fury.

    I felt a bit scared by this escalating outburst and got back into my car wondering what, if anything, I could do to help. Call the police, try to calmly intervene, or do nothing. I did nothing, when suddenly the irate man slammed his door shut, pealed out of the station squealing his tires and honking his horn at the precise moment the other man slowly, deliberately and silently put his cigarette out.

    This is a perfect illustration of last week’s discussion of the teaching of the Two Arrows. To recap, the Two Arrows teaches that the everyday difficulties and challenges of living a life are akin to being shot by an arrow. We all get shot and it hurts. But how we react or respond to this pain determines whether or not we shoot the second arrow, or the third, fourth or the fifth. And this in turn determines whether or not we manage our pain and difficulty skillfully or spread it around like a contagious infection.

    Who knows what was going on with these men. The anger and fear underlying the one man’s outburst were probably about a lot more than a man smoking at a gas station. And what about the silent arrows shot by the smoking man’s stubbornness? Both shot a whole quiver of arrows.

    Here’s an excerpt from a beautifully poignant short story by Alethea Black.

    You, on a Good Day

    “You don’t give the finger to the black pickup truck that tailgates and passes you aggressively, then let go of the wheel to give it two fingers when you see a rainbow-tinted peace sticker on the bumper. You do not call the friend – the one who was in the hospital a few weeks ago, and whom you did not visit or call – you do not call her today because today you need something from her. You do not consider dousing your refrigerator with gasoline and setting it on fire because of the sound its motor makes while you’re trying to work…You do not conjure up, in as vivid detail as possible, every time anyone has ever wronged you in any way…You do not wish that your hairdresser would stop talking about her near-death experience and start focusing on what she’s doing with the scissors. You do not care more about your bangs than you do about the life of a sister human…

    “You do not, you do not, you do not…

    “Not on this day. On this day, you wake up and remember the sight of your four-year-old nephew aiming all of his fire trucks at the television during the coverage of the California wildfires because he wanted to help. On this day, you think about the afternoon you heard a famous poet thoughtfully, gently, lovingly answer a deranged question from an audience member who was mentally ill. On this day, you think about the day the woman in the ATM vestibule heard you crying on the customer service phone because you’d pushed the wrong button and you needed access to that money right away because that check was all the money you had and she had reached into her wallet and handed you a twenty. On this day, you remember Anne Frank’s little scribbled words – or, you don’t so much remember them as you see them floating before your eyes because you’ve got them taped to your wall on a scrap of paper – It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

    There’s much more to this story. To read it in its entirety, you can order it from One Story, one-story.org.

  • So often, mindfulness is defined as the non-judgmental, non-reactive awareness of our present moment experience. But non-judgmental and non-reactive awareness need to be defined.  

    When I watch my own judgmental mind and notice just how fast it tells me what’s good or bad, or what’s right or wrong, I am amazed at what I’m willing to believe without connecting those thoughts and opinions to my actual current experience. 

    Mindfulness asks us to develop awareness based on our direct experience, not the stories we tell ourselves from old conditioned beliefs that may not be accurate or relevant to our present experience. The willingness, curiosity and courage to suspend these opinions long enough to really see what’s happening is how mindfulness defines non-judgmental. It’s an effective way of developing the discerning mind that leads to skillful decisions and wise actions. It’s the mind that has good judgment.

    From a mindfulness perspective, reactivity is understood as the compulsive grasping and clinging or rejecting and pushing away of whatever our experience may be. Being non-reactive doesn’t require us to like what’s happening. It asks us to loosen our grip on how we think things ought to be, again suspending our opinions long enough to respond wisely and effectively. 

    Working with our conditioned judgmental and reactive minds is difficult, and developing mindful awareness expands our tolerance and increases our responsiveness.

    Here’s a wonderful story from the Buddhist tradition, the Teaching of the Two Arrows. 

    All of us, no matter who we are, experience pain, challenge, difficulty, anxiety, stress and suffering. This is the First Noble Truth; life is difficult for everyone, period. In this story, the difficulty of living a life is akin to being shot by an arrow. We all get shot and it hurts. How we react or respond to this pain determines whether or not we shoot the second arrow, or the third, fourth or the fifth.

    Shooting the second arrow is up to us and it comes in all sorts of ways; arguments with people we love after being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, unkind comments to customer service people because we’re not getting what we want, killing a skunk because it sprayed the dog, or any kind of harmful retaliatory actions that stem from our own pain. Do we perpetuate the pain and anger by firing back or do we have the skill, discipline and restraint to recognize and manage our own discomfort? Mindfulness gives us a choice.

    Recently I was having a conversation with a 91 year old man struggling with the natural physical degradations of being 91. After talking about mindfulness and sitting in meditation together for a bit, he asked “Do you think if someone has a terminal illness it’s still possible to be happy?” I wonder if ultimately this is the only question there ever really is.

    How, in the face of sure suffering and sure death, can we find happiness? For me, I want to remember to notice beauty, to say ‘thank you,’ and not to shoot the second arrow.

  • I hope you found last week’s practices useful and helpful. While these are suggestions for managing our work-lives, they’re really applicable anywhere. Here are two more practices you might try.

    Mindfulness in Conversations:

    Coming back to our common desires, we want 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. And it takes a lot of mindfulness 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?
    • 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.
    • With conflict, notice if you’re making assumptions. Ask yourself “Am I sure? Is it true?”

    Cultivating Well-Being 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 month. At the end, you’ll have thirty days of satisfying moments at work and tangible reminders of your well-being.

  • Lately I've been thinking about the nature of work and how we often view of our work-lives as separate from our “real” lives. But work is just like life. It includes everything, the full range of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Wherever we are, however we are, the entirety of our lives is always with us. It informs who we are, how we see the world and how we act.

    For most of us, we hope our work sustains us in ways beyond our economic needs and desires. Whether we are owners, managers or staff members, we are all trying to manage ourselves and our relationships at work as skillfully 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 access our skills. 

    Managing our jobs and our businesses with mindfulness at the core creates a healthy and dignified work environment for everyone. But what is it really and how do we bring it into our work lives?

    Mindfulness is the process of steadying, training, and quieting the mind to see what is actually happening around us and within us, in our minds, hearts and bodies. As our awareness develops, we’re more able to step out of the center of our own stories increasing our capacity for curiosity, expanding our tolerance and resilience, and decreasing the mind’s habitual patterns of unhelpful judgments and internal criticism. 

    By training the mind and body to notice and pay attention to what’s happening, the tension in the mind and the stress in the body often decrease. This gives us more access to our innately clear minds, our naturally kind hearts and our discerning wisdom which in turn lead to skillful, wise action and effective response.

    It’s important to recognize that mindfulness is not about becoming a better this or that. It’s about becoming fully aware of whatever is happening, whether we like it or not, whether it’s pleasant or painful, and finding some ease even with difficulty. In essence, mindfulness increases our capacity to manage the day-to-day challenges and joys of life wherever we are.

    Quick & Easy Practices:

    You can use mindful awareness practices anywhere, anytime and they are especially effective at work. Here are a few practices you might like.

    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? 

    What happens when you do this, is that 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 story-lines 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 you find yourself in this situation, try to slow down. Do one thing at a time. 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.

    These practices are a beginning. Those that focus on how we talk to one another, how we talk to ourselves, and how we cultivate well-being at work are also vitally important. Stay tuned for more one this subject. 

    When we develop and integrate mindfulness into our work environments, it becomes a way of being individually, with our co-workers, bosses and customers. It defines the culture of the work environment itself.

  • Next week I’ll be attending a retreat focusing on the Buddha’s teachings on Wise Speech. The Buddha taught that wise speech is truthful, useful, kind, appropriate, and avoids gossip. In anticipation of this retreat, I’ve been thinking about the enormous power of language and its effect on our lives, and in particular, the consequences of stretching or distorting the truth, and outright lying.

    Emerald City Laundry is a big busy neighborhood laundromat in Arcata, the town where I live in northern California. It’s the kind of place that buzzes with action every day; lots of people with lots of laundry. As one of the owners of the store, it’s my job to keep the store in top operating condition, and periodically we replace large numbers of washers all at once. This takes a lot of organization and coordination to remove old machines and install the new ones with as little disruption as possible.

    On our most recent washer replacement day, everything was in especially good order. It was a Wednesday (our quietest day of the week), the weather was beautiful, and the extra staff we’d hired was ready to work. The truck arrived right on time from Los Angeles, about a thousand miles away, unloaded eight large heavy washers, and promptly left. As soon as we uncrated the first one, we realized the shipment was not the one we ordered.

    Many phone calls ensued to the long list of people involved in this purchase and delivery. Tempers were short, no one knew how such a big error occurred, and no one wanted to take responsibility. We just wanted to know when the trucker would return to pick up the mistaken load and deliver the correct one.

    Sometime during the day, we found out that the equipment company dispatcher knew the wrong machines had been loaded on the truck, allowed them to leave the warehouse and be transported and delivered to our store so very far away. This same dispatcher also had the correct washers loaded on a different truck slated for delivery the very next day, but without telling anyone. We looked at each other is dismay.

    After coming to the obvious conclusion that there was nothing we could do about this fiasco, I sat down at my desk to get some other work done. In my email was a slick full color solicitation from a person offering business development seminars. Among the many things this program promised was “delirious contentment.”  What a fabulous oxymoron! I tried to imagine being delirious and contented at the same time.  Snake oil. 

    When I got home at the end of this same day there was a particularly large black glossy envelope in the mail. I was intrigued enough to open the package, and it turned out to be yet another credit card solicitation. Inside and across the top of the sleek black invitation it said in large white letters “Luxury without Limits.” More snake oil.  

    The day seemed like a joke. Eight incorrect commercial washing machines shipped a thousand miles on purpose, the promise of delirious contentment and luxury without limits. I think the Buddha would just slowly shake his head.

    Wise speech asks us to find the courage to tell the truth even when we’re embarrassed. It also reminds us that just because something is enticing and promising, it may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and it certainly won’t last forever.

    "You should know that kind speech arises from kind mind, and kind mind from the seed of compassionate mind. You should ponder the fact that kind speech is not just praising the merit of others; it has the power to turn the destiny of a nation."

     - Zen master Dogen

  • My husband, Bill, and I recently spent a couple of weeks hiking in remote areas of southern Utah, a starkly beautiful, nearly silent ancient desert landscape almost entirely off the grid. The magnitude of the natural forces that continually shape and carve the multi-colored sandstone and slickrock landscape is hard to comprehend, the sheer power of wind, water, erosion and time. 

    On one hike we stood under a 165 million year old massive sandstone natural bridge. Unspeakably and profoundly small in comparison, we were awestruck at just how short a time we’re here in this life, that we’re just guests passing through.

    After a few days of acclimating to the altitude, sleeping on the ground, convincing ourselves that the backpacking food was really delicious and being generally grimy, we set out on what would be a particularly fabulous day. The sky was a patchwork of cerulean blue and low-lying white billowy clouds, and the temperature was mild with a light breeze to keep us cool.  

    It was a long hike, about 11 miles, and we were in no hurry. The trail was both challenging and comfortable, included sand and dirt, required climbing up, down and around big boulders, through a short slot canyon and across fields of fragrant sage brush amid the explosion of  desert wildflowers at the peak of the springtime bloom; yellow, pink, white, purple, red and orange. Really a perfect day and we were relishing it.

    It was our last day before going back to town to load up on groceries, check in with our families and head out into the next remote area. Towards the end of that perfect day I had a peculiar feeling that the next day we would get some bad news.  It came out of nowhere. And when I told Bill about it, he rolled his eyes. It was a fleeting thought, and I let pass as quickly as it came.

    While traveling the next morning, we turned on our phones and they both lit up with plenty of voice and text messages, not so unusual for being away for a week. But the messages were indeed bad news, the kind of news that changed our bliss to sadness in a moment. It brought us back to the true nature of our lives, the true nature of all of our lives. 

    Everything changes. Life is difficult for everyone. And things happen because other things happen. It’s not personal, it just happens. And it’s really true that without experiencing sorrow, we cannot understand joy, or without the light, there’d be no dark, and pleasure and pain rub up against each other constantly. Life includes everything.

    I recently heard a story about two elderly women living their last days in assisted living facilities. Both had lost their ability to speak with the exception of three words. One woman had two words, and the other had one. The words were temporarily, unexpectedly and precious. What a great description of our trip and our lives. What if we choose to live our lives knowing how temporarily and unexpectedly precious this life truly is? I think it could change everything.

    Sipapu Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
  • I know I said I wouldn't post anything until the end of May, but I came across these beautiful meditation instructions and want to pass them along. They come from Sujato, a well-loved Buddhist monk and teacher from Australia.

    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.


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