Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mindfulness of the Body (One of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness)

I don’t know why it is such a surprise to me, but I feel happy and content lately. Aside from the restlessness that pops up again and again with the storyline that I am missing something because I don’t have a mate, my life is working quite well. Maybe that restlessness really isn’t about that. Maybe it is just restlessness.

I used to feel panicky often. I used to wake up in the morning and freak out. I would lie there and analyze, “Why am I feeling this way? There must be a reason! And if I can figure out the reason, maybe I can do something about it.” After many years of that, I realized that the anxiety was just anxiety. The stories were constantly changing but there was always anxiety, no matter what the story about it was. I realized then that it was more just a physical sensation in my body. It had no reasonable explanation whatsoever. It was out of my control.

So I changed my strategy for dealing with it. I stopped looking for an explanation, a story about the anxiety. I stopped trying to do something about it. Instead I would just lie there and say to myself, “Wow, just notice how the body is feeling now. The body is tense and worried.” I let the feeling be and when stories started to try to explain the anxiety, I would remind myself of what I knew to be true, from experience, that there was no real story to explain this. I focused on the sensations in my body – the heart pounding, the sweating, the nausea, the mind racing to pin down what the danger was – and I just let it happen. When it was really bad and my mind got out of control, I would breathe in and say to myself, “Body.” I would breathe out and say to myself, “Calm.” Saying “Body-Calm” gave my mind something to do other than search for an explanation.

Recently I’ve realized that a lot of the time I am catching the panic before it even starts! I suppose I probably practiced this way for a good year before that happened. It did take time and practice. Now I wake up in the morning and I feel that hint of panic start up, but it is immediately crushed by the knowledge that it is just the same ol’. It is nothing new, nothing special, nothing important. It does not have any power over me any more. The mind has been trained not to go there. The mind has less of a compulsion to try to explain it. It has already been explained. Over and over and over. There is nothing new to panic about (well, unless my life was truly in danger for some reason).

Now that I have had some success with working with anxiety, I think it is time to apply this theory to restlessness. Restlessness is not as worried or afraid as anxiety. It is just a nagging sensation of something not being quite right. It is an urge to fill space. It is the feeling that maybe I should be doing something else. It has an element of doubt. It is discontent. It is not being entirely satisfied with the way things are, even when things are going pretty well. Restlessness also has distinct physical sensations, though much more subtle than panic and anxiety. There may be twitchiness, nail biting, the compulsion to move, the compulsion to do, a feeling of heaviness in the body, tightness in the chest, or tightness in the shoulders.

This stuff is subtle. But the key is to focus on the body instead of the story in the mind. The story I hear to explain the restlessness is, “I don’t have a mate.” My goal is to label that as a thought rather than believing the broken record that wants to play over and over. Perhaps another story might try to take its place. That too is just a thought and should be labeled as such.

The mind/ego wants to be real. It can really beat us up in an effort for us to believe it all and believe it is who we are. But the brain is just doing its job. The mind thinks. It isn’t always right and it isn’t me. The mind creates thoughts. The brain is just an organ that sends electrical impulses around. When we look at all the stuff that passes through our minds on a daily basis, we can see how messy it is! Sometimes we might wonder who it is that is thinking all that. Some of it can be really shocking. If I believe it is me thinking such horrible thoughts, I might have a great sense of shame or self-judgment. But the answer is that it is not me thinking all that. It is just my creative brain coming up with this stuff based on what is coming in from the senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. And our minds also react to what the mind creates, resulting in circles of thoughts.

We can’t always stop what is coming in through our senses. But we can recognize that our brains are just reacting to whatever it is that is coming in. It is not personal.

It is all pretty complicated. We have information coming in from our senses that trigger body, mind and emotional responses. Our bodies react to our minds and our minds to our bodies. But the biggest way we get tripped up is in believing everything that happens in the mind. When I focus on the sensations in my body and just feel the physical sensations of what has arisen instead of getting my mind all wrapped up in it, the crisis passes much more quickly.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Protecting Your Inner Solitude

One thing that keeps ringing in my mind since my time at Aranya Bodhi was a teaching given about protecting your inner solitude. It involves staying present with yourself and even withdrawing from certain social interactions that are not conducive to spiritual goals. The teaching was focused toward monastics protecting their solitude and protecting their ability to keep their many precepts. But this teaching also applies to lay practitioners as well.

It is hard enough for a lay person to keep five precepts. The world and society we live in is geared toward getting more, staying distracted, and trying to achieve our fantasies. It is geared toward constant stimulation and social interactions full of fluff (small talk, gossip, etc).

One thing that has been very difficult for me to work with is the bombardment of entertainment that is hyper-focused on romance. 99 out of 100 songs on the radio have something to do with romantic love in some form or another. It seems like there is not a single blockbuster movie that doesn't include some sort of romantic storyline. And it is so far from reality! But we see it so often in Hollywood that we become convinced that this stuff is real. This just makes us feel like we are missing something in our lives if we don't have a romantic partner. Like there is something wrong with us if we don't experience that fantastic romantic story in which we are the star. I do love this song by Metric called Sick Muse. She sings, "Watch out Cupid, stuck me with sickness, pull your little arrows out and let me live my life." and "Everybody, everybody just wanna fall in love. Everybody, everybody just wanna play the lead." Yep.

This is why I don't watch a lot of movies and don't listen to the radio much. Most of the music I do listen to is instrumental. But my kids like to watch movies and even all those so-called family movies tend to have "happily-ever-after" type romantic themes! It is just impossible to avoid. And it is very tough to try to teach my kids that this is not reality. I can't just take away movies from them altogether. But we do have conversations about them in an effort to help them think critically about the things they learn from entertainment.

It is easy to start thinking that romantic love is our highest goal, our highest purpose in life. But romantic love of any kind is ALWAYS temporary. Even those that make it a lifetime, lose each other eventually in death. Intellectually, it doesn't make much sense to devote our entire lives to something that is fleeting. I think the reason that so many of us do is that we feel that a higher and eternal love and happiness is unattainable, or that it is only available to us in heaven when we die. We have a sense that since this highest love is not attainable, we may as well just give in to that fleeting, earthly, romantic love. And then we try to hang on to it and we suffer. Suffer dearly.

Don't get me wrong. I am actually not against romantic love. I still long for a beautiful companion to enjoy pleasures and pain with. But the lesson I am learning is that this is only an after-thought in comparison to my highest goal, my highest purpose for my life. My highest goal is solitary happiness. This solitary happiness is my rock. Resting in the reality of the way things are in perfect equanimity is my goal. I find this equanimity through solitude and meditation.

When I am alone, it is easy. I can dwell in mindfulness. When I am with others, I find that I need to do a better job of protecting that mindfulness and inner solitude. It is easy to get pulled off course. To get pulled away from my purpose. To get distracted. To get pulled into stories that spin off into proliferation in my mind.

Just having a mind of spaciousness when I am with others helps me to stay true to this inner solitude. It is possible to be with others and to have a mind of solitude. It is like abiding at the bottom of the ocean where it is calm, while the waves swell up above at the surface. Here is where I should abide when I get distracted by the search for romantic love.

Recommended Reading:
Nothing Higher to Live For: A Buddhist View of Romantic Love by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano

Friday, April 8, 2011

Women of the Awakening Forest

My daughters and I just returned from a 6 day retreat at Aranya Bodhi Monastery in the forest of Northern California. We were immersed in the beauty and tranquility of the forest, taken away from our usual distractions, and had the incredible honor of being in the presence of some of the Buddha's noble disciples - bhikkhunis who are practicing well each and every day.

I was both excited and nervous to receive the invitation from Ayya Sobhana to visit the monastery AND bring my children with me. I worried about how they would manage without the comforts and distractions of home. But it turns out that the kids were more flexible than I ever imagined. Our daily schedule was: breakfast at 7, puja (chanting) at 8:30, lunch at 11, dhamma talk after lunch, errands, outings and art in the afternoon, puja at 6:30pm, bedtime for kids and meditation time for mom at 8pm. We were free from the distractions of TV and internet. We took the five precepts. We had long walks on the forest path back and forth between the kuti (small cabin) that we stayed in and the hermitage grounds. We picked flowers for the Buddha. We heard Jataka stories (Buddhist fables). We learned about how to be happy through the Noble Eightfold Path. We visited the ocean. The girls collected rocks in the creek. The girls drew beautiful pictures with crayons and markers and created beaded bracelets with some craft supplies their Grandma had sent them.

This was the first family retreat held at Aranya Bodhi. None of us (the residents nor I) really had a plan or knew what to expect, but I have to say I think it was a huge success. My 7 year-old daughter especially enjoyed the dhamma talks and puja and is looking forward to practicing at our meditation center community on Sunday. My 5 year-old daughter was crabby and disinterested at times, but she seemed to enjoy resting her head on my lap during puja and lots of hugs and love. They both greatly benefited from the quiet and natural beauty of the forest. They were more imaginative and creative all week than I have ever seen them. And there is no doubt in my mind that they will never forget this experience.

I will not forget either. The experience has inspired me in many ways. I have so much admiration for those that have dedicated their life to following the way of the Buddha.

The Buddha said that both men and women are equal in their capacity for enlightenment. This was said at a time in history where this point of view was unpopular. Even now, more than 2500 years later, there are still so many who hold the view that a woman cannot become a fully ordained monk. But against common views at the time, Buddha established both the order of bhikkhus (male monks) and order of bhikkhunis (female monks).

The Theravada tradition has held true to the most simple teachings and practices of the Buddha in the original Pali language in which they were taught. It is considered "the oldest surviving Buddhist school." Its strongest roots are in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. In the Theravada tradition, the order of Bhikkhunis ended in Southeast Asia and there are many that claim the order cannot be revived.

Since then, women have settled for practicing as siladharas, who undertake 100 precepts. But for those women who want to take the practice to the highest level with 311 precepts, practicing in the same way that the men do, opportunities have been limited and not without obstacles. There are very few places in the world where a woman can train to become fully ordained in the Theravada Buddhist tradition as a bhikkhuni. I had the incredible good fortune to be invited to visit such a place at Aranya Bodhi.

Why bhikkhuni? Why not be content to practice as siladhara? Here is an excerpt from Bhikkhuni and Siladhara: Points of Comparison FAQ on the web site for the organization called Dhammadharini, which supports Aranya Bodhi:

"There are many in South and Southeast Asian Buddhism, both leading monastics and laypeople, who have said that the full ordination and keeping the precepts of the bhikkhuni discipline is just too hard and strenuous for women who are by nature softer and weaker. They may also suggest that, especially in this degenerate age, 8 or 10 precepts are much more comfortable and conducive to a woman's nature and practice. However, we are left to wonder then, if this is true, why it is that women such as the Siladharas most willingly undertook greater discipline. And why the Buddha himself said nothing of this sort, but rather suggested that the bhikkhunis should train themselves related to the precepts as the bhikkhus train themselves. Or why the Buddha would have instituted precepts for the bhikkhunis at their behest. We are led to the conclusion that there are those women, just as those men, both ancient and modern, sincere in the monastic discipline, who have found a thorough and complete monastic discipline supportive, beneficial and conductive for their practice of the path as well as for the short-term and long-lasting welfare of the Sangha."

Essentially, women are up to the challenge of a rigorous spiritual discipline and deserve the opportunity to practice it. The Buddha said that this discipline leads to happiness and well being for ourselves and for all beings. Women deserve the chance to test out these teachings and find out for themselves if this is true. Not to mention that there is a real need for women teachers and leaders to pass on the teachings of the Buddha in a way unique to women. As a laywoman, I need strong women teachers of the Dhamma that I can really relate to. I need a model for how to practice. I need to see what is possible. I have seen the peace and love that is possible with this path in the bhikkhunis I have had the good merit to encounter.

The Aranya Bodhi monastery is in its infancy and is extremely "rustic," to put it nicely. Generators for electricity are only turned on when absolutely needed, they have wood stoves, outhouses, propane for cooking and heat only when necessary. The trailers on site are very old and barely functional. The trailer that was being used for the kitchen had to be abandoned due to extreme mold and mildew making it unsafe. At the moment, they are doing all their cooking outdoors under a tent. They have one water heater that they use for washing and showers in a tent outdoors. I don't mind living that way for a week, but these women live this way every day! And they do not complain. They are dedicated to living pure lives according to the teachings of the Buddha. They are beautiful.

Please support the women of Aranya Bodhi and help set the stage for a future for women in Buddhism and the Bhikkhuni path. Dana (generosity) to support the monastery can be made with the Dhammadharini organization through Network for Good.

Click here to donate.