Your Weekly Diversion, Week 18

 

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Week 18, and each day this week seems to have brought one Breaking News story after another. What do we do with the parry and thrust, the he said-he said, the weird, the loony, the scary and the unbelievable?  To paraphrase Bette Davis in “All About Eve”: Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy fight.

So of course we need our diversions. Here goes. Mother Jones magazine says that we are turning to comfort foods to salve our fears and quell our anxieties.

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Some turn to Pinterest to ogle food porn, those succulent photos of cheesy macaroni casseroles, pans of iced cinnamon rolls, plates of pretty cookies, pots of spicy chili, and recipes for every imaginable ethnic cuisine or dietary plan, and every way to cheat you could possibly want. If you want to enjoy a meal and not go crazy off the dietary deep end, it helps to search “healthy smoothies” or “salads” or your desired way of eating, be it vegan, paleo, low-carb, plant-based, high-protein or what have you. Then the food porn is at least in your wheelhouse. Hmm, sorry for the mixed metaphor 🤔.

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It is during times like these when mind-fulness, focus on the experience of the here and now, is crucial. The projection into the future doom and gloom, the downfall of our democratic civilization, the climate meltdown of our planet home, a nuclear holocaust, and all the other scary prospects that the future might hold if this or that happens, is a kind of mental exercise that only brings suffering. We have enough suffering, or dukkha, in our lives as it is. The Buddha said that dukkha–suffering, is the First Noble Truth. So to learn to stay focused, meditation is a great help.

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Helping others can help lift us from a potential pit of despair. Suffering may be unavoidable, but it brings good karma to help alleviate it whenever we can. A dear friend of mine and his wife are helping to bring water to an arid part of Africa, a location where women and children have to carry heavy containers of water on their heads up hills just to cook and wash. If you would like to help the Abonse Pipeborne Water Project, they have a GoFundMe campaign on right now.

This week’s musical diversion comes to us from 1962 when cellist Yo Yo Ma performed for President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy and President Eisenhower after having been discovered by famed cellist Pablo Casals. His older sister played the piano to accompany this precocious 7-year-old boy’s amazing performance.

Namasté

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Treatise on the Wisdom of Living in the Now

 

I read this recently and found it a wonderful treatise on mindfulness, present-centeredness, and living more in the now. Although this too is a WordPress post, and I have reblogged Buddhism Now posts in the past, I wasn’t able to do it the usual way this time. So please keep in mind as you read my post that these are the words of Buddhist scholar Sir John Aske

Regular Everything
by John Aske

Posted on 24 February 2017 by Buddhism Now

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Stupa (chorten), 17th-18th century Tibet. Metropolitan Museum of Art

We all like things to be regular, and what’s wrong with that, you might reasonably ask? We all want stable conditions as well. We don’t want anything to change, either — we want it to stay the same — or more or less, always.

Having a regular job, regular meals and somewhere regular to sleep at night can only be good, better than sleeping in a ditch and being hungry all the time. The gravedigger at Drewsteignton preferred to sleep under a hedge, he told me, because a roof ‘made the place stuffy,’ but he was an unusual man.

But these are all physical conditions, and though they can strongly affect the way we behave and think (our views and opinions), we must be careful that they do not blind us to what is really happening. It is not so much what we have, but what we depend upon having, now and in the future, that gives us problems.

How often, acting upon our need for comfort and security, do we sacrifice our freedom and happiness? An old friend used rather ruthlessly to extract from people what they really wanted; it was often living in the South Seas in those days, though that sounds rather old hat now, with modern air travel. He then explained to them how easily they could fulfil their dreams. In virtually every case, he told me, they invented a thousand feeble excuses why they couldn’t. With the exception of Scott of the Antarctic and William Thesiger, we are nearly all terribly attracted to a conventional lifestyle.

That is one reason why the Buddhist sangha of monks and nuns is so vital. It consists of people (often quite successful people) who have gone into homelessness and given everything up to ‘follow their dream,’ as Joseph Campbell calls it. But even more than that, they know from what the Buddha taught that their dream is not a fantasy, but a greater reality. We cannot truly live in the moment — and that means truly live — if our minds live somewhere else: next month, next year, or often, sadly, last year.

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Ascetic Master, probably a Mahasiddha, Tibet, 17th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fearing death, disease and taxes, we build a whole raft of tomorrows and sail off on it into the future. But it is not the future, it is a dream world that surely prevents us living our real lives and moments fully. We are so preoccupied with our self-created world, that we fail to see and attend to this one — the one in which we really live and of which we are a real part. When the fiction collapses in the face of change and disaster — as it periodically must — we are lost, for the world in which we find ourselves is one that seems to have been thrust upon us, and not of our choosing. Reality is certainly not of our choosing, but it is what it is and what we are, and until we recognise this, we will keep blundering around in the dark and banging into things we didn’t know were there. It’s like going to the lavatory during the night, half asleep. A natural need overtakes us and we know we have to go from point A to point B somewhere, but it is as if we have forgotten or never noticed the way before, and we collide with all sorts of obstacles that wouldn’t bother us in the light of day and in full consciousness. And it is just this full consciousness or rather awareness that is lacking in our daily lives. This unawareness is so comfortable and convenient to us in our daily lives, that we create obstacles where there would otherwise be none. Sometimes these obstacles are called ‘karma’.

Our obsession with things and targets prevents us seeing the ground beneath our feet and if we do look at it, it may be with dismay, for it is not quite as we want it to be or as we expect it to look, like coming back to an untidy room after a holiday.

Our minds are themselves like untidy rooms full of yesterdays and tomorrows, always chasing after this and that, seldom contented with what we have and where we are.

But the more we remain aware in these moments, the more remarkable they become, and the more we belong in them. The more we live truly in these moments, the more they lose their separateness, and the more we take — and are — everything as it comes.

(First published in the August 2006 Buddhism Now.)

Namasté

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Milkweed in October

All photos mine, taken with iPhone 6.

All photos mine, taken with iPhone 6.

Autumn has descended upon us virtually overnight with her reds and yellows, browns and orange leaves among the green. The garden is on its last legs, the tomatoes picked and sitting on the windowsill to ripen. Only the exuberant parsley and leggy basil remain. I’ve filled jars with both to enjoy their green abundance and aroma, and to make picking a few leaves here and there a breeze.

On my way back from our community garden the other day I came upon a field of milkweed, their snowy fluff catching my eye among the greens and autumn colors.

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I knew little about milkweed (Asclepius syriaca), mostly that the sap of the immature pod is white and milky in appearance. I just referred to Wikipedia on the subject and read that monarch butterfly larvae feed solely on milkweed and therefore monarch populations in a given area depend upon the abundance of milkweed plants within it. The silky floss is so soft to the touch, even with the flat brown seeds to which it is attached. As I approached the field, I saw bits of fluff in the air.

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Up here on the Pocono Plateau milkweed is ubiquitous, on the roadsides and in fields. The ones pictured here grow along a leachfield for the community’s water management. And now I know why several varieties of monarchs are so abundant here as well!

How interesting it is to me that humans have found little use for these plants, despite considerable effort to eat the green pod, use the sap or exploit their floss and wood fibers for industry. The Wikipedia article says that Euell Gibbons found a way to eat them and that native Americans have used their fiber for textiles.

The miracle of nature is so present here in this amazing plant. A particular species of insect, the monarch butterfly, relies on this particular plant family for its survival. The flowers are pollinated by a variety of insects, and when the dried pods split open the wind catches and elevates the fluff and makes sure the seeds scatter far and wide.

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Mindfulness practice trains us to see and explore all that we encounter for its purpose and intent. We do not always understand what we see, but as nature unfolds before us and we are fortunate enough to learn about it, the world makes more sense to us. The milkweed, a plant of no remarkable beauty until fall, with its knobby pods, serves a vital role in the ecology of our planet. Having met and savored its beauty up close this week, I will never take it for granted in same way again.

Namasté

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May We know How to Nourish the Seeds of Joy and Happiness in Ourselves

Loving kindness meditation includes aspiring for ourselves and all other beings to know how to nourish the seeds of joy and happiness in ourselves every day. Daily practice of seeing, recognizing and nourishing those seeds of joy is not only a pleasure but an obligation towards our well-being, just as eating, breathing and sleeping are equally important obligations. Oh sure, we can get along without nourishing our happiness, but as a wise one said, “man does not live by bread alone,” neither can we flourish without regular infusions of joy. How do we know how to nourish joy? I find that it is mindfulness to daily experience, even the smallest things and seemingly irrelevant events, that provides the seeds of joy. Once perceived and appreciated, and shared, the small things and brief events are ours to savor with joy. In the past few days, here are just some of the things and events that have brought me joy:

  • Watching a chipmunk eat piece after piece of a cut-up peach, filling his cheeks, running back somewhere in the underbrush, and returning for more
  • Seeing the white-tipped, bushy tail of a red fox as he lept in tall grass near my garden, as this beautiful drawing by irishishka portrays

    Red Fox Pounce by irishishka

  • Smelling a skunk under our window at night, the pungent aroma signalling some distress or confrontation but no indications of what by morning.

    Pepe Le Pew, courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

  • Hearing the amazing hooting of an owl in the middle of the night, and learning that it was a Great Horned Owl

    Great Horned Owl

  • Seeing wild raspberries near my garden Buddha

    Wild Raspberries

  • Seeing Spotted Touch-Me-Not near the raspberries

    Spotted Touch-Me-Not

  • Realizing that my anger can teach me something wonderful and useful, healing, peaceful and divine, by reading “The Poison Tree” by Judy Lief in the latest Shambhala Sun. Click here for a preview.

    “The Poison Tree” in Shambhala Sun

    What brings you joy today?

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Gazing at Peace and Truth

 We gaze at the face of the Buddha, one who has shown countless beings who have gone before us the way of peace and truth, of right living, of non-harming (ahimsa), of mindfulness, of dwelling in the moment, of experiencing life open and aware (mindfulness). We see calm and beauty in his face, and we remember why we seek it, for peace in our hearts and for peace in the world we inhabit. We seek to live honorably, fairly, humanely, responsibly and rightly, and embodying loving kindness (Metta).

What do we bring today to honor this enlightened being who has spoken wisdom, passed down to us through the ages, offering tools by which to bring an end to suffering in ourselves and in others? If we follow the Dharma, we bring the intention to align our lives, every moment of every day, with the Noble Eightfold Path. Perhaps we succeed only momentarily, but as we continue to practice with the intentions of Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration, we will have more such right moments. Even more perhaps than the peace right living brings to us is the peace it can bring to all with whom we come in contact in our lives. The ripples spread ever outward, and the healing influence and positive effects are endless.

The path awaits.

Namaste

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Overcoming Obstacles to Meditation

Image courtesy of Kelledia's Garden

Image courtesy of Kelledia’s Garden

Meditation is so important to me. I often share my commitment to meditation with friends, family and sometimes psychotherapy patients and guidance clients. It is my hope to spark sufficient interest in the practice that others might try meditation for themselves and find the many blessings from the practice that I have received. Some tell me they already have a practice, and this nourishes my happiness. Others express a willingness to meditate and I suggest how they can begin. Others still give me reasons why meditation is no good for them, tell me how they tried and they could not do it, or give a critical take on the practice from afar. I decided to address these obstacles to embracing the practice of meditation. Perhaps you have heard these reasons from others or said them yourself. Let’s see what we can do with them here.

FAQs

Meditation is too passive for me. I’m a action person. Why should I  sit there doing nothing?

Meditation actually is very active. We sit and in doing so we engage various muscles throughout the body to help ourselves remain upright. Some of us even find that our bodies sway as we sit deep in our practice. There are many postures adopted by people who meditate: Lotus position, Half-Lotus position, Burmese posture, sitting or kneeling with a seiza (meditation bench), sitting on a zabuton (meditation mat) with or without a zafu (round cushion), chair sitting, and what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Chrysanthemum Pose (any position that is comfortable for you). I urge anyone who is curious about these poses and the words that describe them to research them. Images and descriptions abound online.

We sit and we breathe in and out, perhaps with a mantra, and let our thoughts drift. Our goal is to notice our thoughts but not engage them. Naturally we find ourselves distracted by our thoughts and engaging them without realizing we are doing so. When we become aware we are doing this, we return to our breath or our mantra. When we manage to begin to sit for 15 or 20 minutes, and especially if we sit longer, when we get back to our feet our muscles will tell us that we have been engaged in an activity.

There’s nowhere in my place where I can have peace and quiet. I can hear the TV and people talking, and I find myself listening to the words and not meditating. How do I meditate with noise around me?

It is a myth that in order to meditate we need complete silence. If we are distractible, and many of us are, we can mask the distracting sounds with white noise or other sounds that can enhance meditation. I often use music such as Zen flute songs, chanting, New Age sounds, and Tibetan singing bowls from an iTunes meditation playlist I’ve developed over time. I also use nature sounds such as surf, waterfall, wind chimes, or crackling fire as white noise, or a combination of two of these. I recommend the Tune In Radio and Calm Radio apps for this purpose, although some selections involve intermittent interruptions inviting paid subscriptions, which can be worth it if it helps you. I find these work well to create an island of serene sound in which to meditate.

My thoughts race and next thing I know I’m all worried about something, no matter how hard I try to focus on my breathing or mantra. I’m no good at meditation. I just can’t do it. Why should I try again?

You are meditating even when you become distracted. Meditation is not about reaching a state of mindless bliss where nothing happens in your head. Meditation is about being mindful of your thoughts and staying above the fray where you don’t engage them. However, since we all do it in meditation, the key is not to react with shame or a sense of hopelessness, but to respond with awareness of having strayed from the focal point of breath or mantra and return to it. We will do this many times in our meditation sessions. The key is to come back to the process of meditating. Just keep doing it and know you are doing it.

You don’t understand. I sit down, set the intention to meditate for 5 minutes, maybe even set a timer. Next thing I know I’m in the kitchen making a cup of tea. If I hear the bell of the timer, I am clueless. I have totally forgotten I was trying to meditate. I feel that I’m a failure at meditation. What’s wrong with me?

When this happens, you may be dissociating. It’s possible that sitting in this way triggers a sense of vulnerability and then anxiety, and for some people that’s all it takes to switch their attention from the “meditation channel” to something else. If that happens to you, I suggest putting a Post-It note somewhere you’re sure to notice it near where you intend to sit to meditate. On the note you can write something like, “At 2:10 p.m. I am sitting to meditate for 10 minutes.” When you “come to” with no clue, this can reorient you back into the intention. You can re-enter your meditation if you wish, or you can leave it for a later time. People with chronic dissociative symptoms often have difficulty with meditation until they reach some consensus within that this activity is both safe and desirable. Many people who suffer from extreme dissociation find that addressing this in therapy is helpful. Until you feel more at ease meditating, I consider every attempt, however brief and after however long a hiatus, to be a goal reached successfully. Celebrate it!

Meditation isn’t for me. It’s for monks and New-Agey, hippie, punk people, not for me. I don’t care about enlightenment. I just want to reduce my stress. The trouble is, I don’t want to take drugs to do that. I wish there were something natural I could do to reduce my stress. What can I do?

Good news! While some meditation is overtly spiritual in nature and many enjoy it as such, there is a secular form of meditation that can be very effective in reducing disturbing feelings such as stress and certain health issues related to stress. In fact, this technique is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR. Watch the video and see what you think:

Want to know more? Check out this MBSR Workbook. Or search online for more information. A friend began meditating after learning MBSR at a clinic where she was being treated for health issues  exacerbated by stress. She found MBSR very helpful. She has since begun Buddhist meditation, saying she felt she needed a more spiritual form of meditation.

How can I motivate myself to meditate? I want to make meditation a regular part of my life, but I get so discouraged when days go by and I am either too busy, too lazy or too unwilling to take the time to sit and do it.

 Graphic by DannaRay on Etsy


Graphic by Danna Ray on Etsy

Most of us need some encouragement to start a habit. By the way, it only takes from 14 to 21 days of doing something for consecutive days to establish a habit. Why not try to establish the habit of meditating? Then you will be more inclined to make the effort. But about getting motivated,  here are some ways you can do that:

  1. Ask a friend who meditates to encourage you, and then perhaps arrange to call, text or email him or her that you are going to sit, and then call or send another message after you’ve done it. Some call this “book-ending” and it can really help us do things we seem to have an aversion to doing, even when we have a desire to do it.
  2. Start a journal, on paper, on your computer or mobile device, or online. I have used the Insight Timer app with its great journal function for years. It’s a wonderful tool and at the end of every session you complete using its timer, it offers you the option of writing in its journal, which remains private on your device. There is also a robust online community on the app with many fellow meditators around the world joining you when you sit. Periodically you will receive notifications that you’ve meditated for so many days, weeks, months or years, and get colored stars. That can be a great motivator for some people.
  3. Read a good book about meditation. I recommend Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice, by Thich Nhat Hanh. There are concise, simple directions on how to start meditating. Depending on your goals, there are a number of ways suggested in the book, and any of them can help you get going.
Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice by Thich Nhat Hanh

Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice by Thich Nhat Hanh

However you begin to meditate, I hope you will try it for yourself. I have found great peace of mind every day from my personal practice. I hope you will too. Just face those obstacles head-on and have a seat!

Namaste

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Happy Happy, Joy Joy, Spring is here!

Google Spring doodle

Spring has arrived! If you opened your computer, iOS or Android device this morning and clicked on Google to search something out, you saw the image above. It’s animated, so check it out on Google! Seldom has a Google Doodle lifted my spirits as much!

This has been the most horrendous of winters in the Northeast that most of us can remember. Oldtimers have told me they can’t remember such a span of unending winter misery in New York. It has felt as if the cold and snow and ice would never end. But with the arrival of the vernal equinox today at about 1:00 pm EDT, officially, winter is over! Oh sure, we may get more cold days and even some snow before summer hits, but basically, we’ve made it through the worst, and bluer skies and warm weather await.

Why does it matter so much to us? How much it matters has a lot to do with our biology (genetics predominately) and our temperament. If we are active people who enjoy winter sports, the advent of snow can be cause for celebrating.

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We have snowshoes and have been enjoying them this winter, but care must be taken always to be moving forward and use the poles. Failing to do either of these can mean falling into hip-deep snow with virtually no way to get upright again. Nevertheless, I love snowshoeing and look forward to getting to use them again. We may still have sufficient snow in the country to use the snowshoes, but if we have to wait until next winter, I won’t be sorry.

Genetically, we may be prone to depression in the form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Many of my clients struggle with this every year, and sometimes the best we can do about it is to acknowledge that eventually it will end. Some people have told me that in late December when the days grow imperceptibly longer again, they can start to feel that depression lift. There are full-spectrum lighting devices available that mimic sunlight, and a few people I have treated claim they help, but of course, only if they use them. Because it means sitting by the light source for 30 minutes or so, many people don’t find them practical.

If our temperament is anxious, it may have begun to seem that this winter is a personal affront to us, a scheme designed to thwart our best efforts and consign us to misery, forever and ever, amen. If our temperament is depressive, we may feel dumped on by the universe and believe that despite winter always coming to an end in the past, this year, and maybe due to the wacky weirdness of climate change, it will never leave. We may imagine ourselves peering out onto an icy front walk in July. Depression has a way of lying to us and convincing us that whatever misery we currently experience is interminable, permanent.

Life is actually pretty short, in the scheme of things. It seems just as if it were yesterday that our adult kids were babies, for example, or that we ourselves were young and had a vast lifetime of possibilities stretching ahead of us. If we don’t live in the now, we miss our lives. Here’s where mindfulness offers us so much. We need to move with all deliberate speed, meaning proceed on the path without withering by the wayside for too long. Meaning we need to understand what our priorities are because they are what drive us. Meaning we need to go slowly enough to savor the life we are living, even the suffering which is such a great teacher that makes the sweetness in life so much more delicious. “No mud, No lotus”, as Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us.

more to life Gandhi

What have you hoped to accomplish in this life? Have you started to go after the things you still fervently wish for? No? Start now. Begin to write, take a painting class, start a blog, take photographs with your phone and have fun playing around with them on your computer or tablet. Take a class, begin to meditate. Whatever it is, there is a way you can begin to do it, if even only a little bit. Do it! Let go of what anyone else thinks you should or should not do. Listen to your heart and try to let it guide you into a positive new direction, one which aligns with your values and your dreams.

life is short

Those of us who have sat by the bedside of a dying loved one know how short life is. So let’s begin to nail down some goals and take steps toward reaching them. We just don’t know how much time we will have if we delay.

do it now

May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.

And today, this is my practice.

Namaste

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