Monday, August 14, 2017

The most valuable thing Buddhism has taught me

On journey along the Buddhist path I have encountered valuable concepts such as impermanence and cultivating wisdom and compassion. However, I must say that of all of these lessons, the Buddhist idea of the Middle Way has had the strongest impact on my life. 

I have always had an intense personality. While I consider myself passionate and loyal, the flip side is that I am also quick to anger. Whenever challenged, my passion has kept me going, but at times has also left me just plain exhausted.

Enter my discovery of Buddhism. In the many books I read, I was repeatedly introduced to the idea walking the Middle Way. To illustrate and explain this simple yet important concept, several authors focusing on basic Buddhist concepts referred to versions a story known as the Parable of the Lute.

To summarize one version of the story, Siddhartha Gautama (who later became the Buddha) heard a fisherman teaching a young boy the proper way to tune a lute, a kind of stringed instrument. The fisherman said, "Listen, when the strings of the lute are too loose, the lute does not produce any sound, but when you tune it too tight, the strings snap. Only when the strings are tuned just right the lute can make music."

Siddhartha, who had at that point spent several years depriving his body in his quest for enlightenment, had a revelation; One can achieve true wisdom neither by a life of merriment nor mortification, but only by a life lived in moderation- The Middle Way. This realization had very important implications for Siddhartha; his change in course would eventually lead him to enlightenment and devise the foundations of Buddhism- the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path.    

Over 2,600 years later, here I am, learning about the Dharma and its Middle Way. Although advocating moderation in one's life is certainly not exclusively 'Buddhist' (my great-grandfather had his own saying on the topic!), Buddhism has helped me embrace moderation and let go of 'spiritual' tactics that employ deprivation or self-punishment.    

Buddhism has taught me that things can be different, and for that I am grateful.

What Buddhist concept/s had the most impact on your life? Feel free to share in the comments!

May all beings be happy!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Happy 10th Anniversary Buddhism!

Ten years ago this month, I stumbled upon this way of life called Buddhism. So much has happened since then, so many milestones and events (a graduate degree, our wedding and marriage, a new job, pregnancy and giving birth, motherhood)- yet I so clearly remember how I felt. 

After seeing others around me experience difficulty and tragedy, I recall feeling like I was floundering, searching for meaning and comfort in an uncertain world. I went to church/spiritual services and read books about how to be more productive, organized, etc. But everything I encountered seemed so hollow. 

One day while browsing on Amazon, I found a book called 'Open Heart, Clear Mind' by Thubten Chodron. The Buddhist element, though intriguing, was not what drew me to ordering the book, but rather the gentle, uplifting, and universal approach described by reviewers towards leading a fulfilling spiritual life. 

After receiving the book, I took a stroll downtown and started reading on a park bench. Time flew by, and I realized that it was already late afternoon. Following a late lunch I continued to read, and finished the entire book late that evening. 

Why was I so captivated? What was different about this book? Line after line, chapter after chapter, I found that most of what I read was what I had believed my entire life. These were things I had never encountered before and that no one had ever told me, but rather things I knew in both my heart and mind to be true. There were also sections of the book that discussed ideas that were not so familiar (e.g. reincarnation) but they were presented in such a way that satisfied both my spiritual and intellectual curiosity and sense of logic.

After this initial introduction, I devoured many, many books about meditation, mindfulness, loving kindness, and other topics central to Buddhism for at least four more years. I went to meditation groups, Buddhist talks and retreats, and even became the president of the Buddhist organization at my university. But though I was incredibly engaged intellectually, spiritually, and socially in Buddhist philosophy and community (the Dharma and the Sangha!), none of it felt forced or like I had something to prove. 

On the contrary, all of it felt completely natural, fueled by the fresh curiosity and joy for learning of the 'beginner mind'. It was both exhilarating and humbling to learn ancient concepts that could guide anyone (whatever religion or creed) towards true and meaningful happiness- all the while having trust and reverence for one's own intellect. My personal discovery of Buddhism made me who I am today, and is something I will remember with fondness for the rest of my life. I attribute this exciting but nonjudgemental approach to learning about Buddhism to reading books like Open Heart, Clear Mind, which really set the tone for my discovery. 

So, you might be wondering, how has following the Buddhist path had an impact on my life? What has remained the same? What, if anything, has changed? What do I still struggle with? 

I certainly wouldn't blame you for asking these questions- so here is a quick run-down! 

Personal impact of Buddhism:
Patience. I am a more patient person now, mostly because I realize that most things are not worth getting upset about (though how much patience I have is relative- see below!). I always think about the quote from the Dalai Lama, "If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it's not fixable, then there is no help in worrying".

I don't need stuff to be happy. After finally having my own income, I used to love shopping and accumulating lots of clothes, shoes, and decorative items. Though this did not put me in financial debt (yay for Goodwill and thrift stores!), I now cherish the beauty of less and the zen of empty space! Also, I have learned that accumulating more stuff will not eliminate the sense of loss from any unfortunate or difficult events in one's life. I realized this through learning about the concept of non-grasping, and through the experience of dealing with too much stuff for too long! 

My opinion is not the only one. I used to argue for hours with others about politics, religion, and feminism (all the things to not discuss in polite company, ha!), so adamant that my opinion was the (only) right one. Though in some cases I still can't help but feel 'I am right', I now have so much more respect for others' life experiences, and how they have led them to their own point of view. However imperfect my practice may be, I specifically attribute this to the empathy generated by loving-kindness. 

What has remained the same?
Becoming angry never helps. Though I have (relatively) more patience now, I admit that frustration still frequently gets the best of me. I find this has been the case especially since having a child- I get so impatient in stores and while driving because I am afraid my daughter will need me before I get home. 

Okay, so on one hand, yes, that makes me human, but on the other hand I know that anger and frustration usually only make things worse. I can only hope that each occurrence is a lesson that slowly chips away at anger and builds the capacity for patience.    

Thoughts lead to actions. The mind is such a powerful thing, and the thoughts it holds have the power to make or break one's well-being and character. As a result, I do my best to be vigilant of my thoughts and steer away from those that could be destructive to myself and my relationships. 

What has changed?
My approach to mindfulness. A few weeks after the arrival of our daughter, I began to feel incredibly anxious, especially while my husband was at work. My confidence as a new mom was so low- Anticipating and analyzing every cry and whimper, I lived with the fear that I was doing everything wrong. The mindfulness strategies I had used in the past to cope with stressful situations simply did not work, and I was a nervous wreck. For example, I could no longer breathe and accept the present moment for what it was ~ anxiety, stress, and all ~ because I simply felt too vulnerable and fragile to have that kind of focus or capacity for surrender. 

One day while rocking my daughter asleep in my arms, I had an epiphany, "Her crying is not a reflection of you as a mother. She is a baby, and she cries when she needs you, not because of something you did wrong." After that things were better, and I slowly started to calm down. This was also a turning point for my mindfulness practice ~ rather than thinking it had to be done a certain way, my implementation of mindfulness became more relaxed, and also more inclusive as I opened up and involved my daughter. Whether she is smiling, feeding, moving around, or crying because she bumped her head (because of moving around!), these are all opportunities to be mindful. Though it sometimes makes me laugh in the midst of her loud shrieking sessions~ present moment, wonderful moment, indeed! 😇 For more about how my mindfulness practice (and view of mindfulness) has adjusted as a parent, please read this post.

Don't read it, live it! In the beginning almost everything I read was somehow linked to Buddhist philosophy, though this is no longer the case. I still enjoy it, but I think this is a natural progression from reading about Buddhist concepts to working towards actually implementing them. I have accepted that I am a human being currently focusing on struggling with that implementation, and I am comfortable with it. 

What do I struggle with?
Meditation (believe it or not!). Though I do my best to adhere to Buddhist principles, in truth I am a terrible meditator. Terrible in the sense that I have never been able to build a habit of sitting more than ten minutes. Though I know it is not about how much time, my attempts to cultivate a (sitting) meditation practice have always felt uncomfortable and forced. However, I have found that walking in nature has consistently led to the feeling of well-being and mental insight that everyone who consistently meditates seems to mention. I still cannot determine whether my failure to engage in traditional meditation is due to laziness, ignorance, or both, but my gravitation towards 'meditating' in nature gives me hope for developing a practice that is all my own~ and more importantly effective in cultivating mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion. 

Balancing patience with assertiveness. Becoming more patient has been big on my list (can you tell?!) but sometimes I have found that in the process of letting go I end up not caring about the end result. This is of course not a problem unless that end result has important and lasting consequences. Indeed, I have learned that patience is not equivalent to complacency. In an effort to counter this tendency I try my best to follow the Middle Way.

Self- and situational acceptance. In a word, gratitude. Don't get me wrong, I am grateful for many, many things in my life, but I really do sometimes need an attitude adjustment and just be grateful, no excuses. Self-acceptance has also now become even more crucial not only in regards to spiritual growth, but to serve as a positive role model for my daughter as she grows up in a world where body image is distorted by the thousands of 'shopped photos that greet us almost everywhere we look.

That is all I can think of right now, but that is my story today. As I put my thoughts together, I have a renewed sense of thankfulness for everything and everyone in my life. I release whatever pain, fear, and bitterness there was in the past (and celebrate the good!), receive the present moment with joy, and look towards the future with hope.  

Have you reached a milestone on your spiritual journey? How have things changed or remained the same for you? Please share in the comments below.
May all beings be happy!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Is mindfulness only for those who are single and 'free'?

As a new mom, one of the things that was a bit of a shock was how my 'monkey mind' (while already there) went completely berserk. It swung here, there, and everywhere, thinking of baby, myself, tasks, worries, when is my husband coming home, why is the weather so horrible, etc. Though pretty apt at multitasking, over the past few years I really made an effort to reel that aspect in my personality in. At my job I worked on one thing at a time whenever possible, neatly checking items off my to-do list after several focused time periods working towards my goal. 

Now at home with my baby, the knowledge that she may need my attention at any given moment has caused some major scatter of my focus while doing other things. Though I cringe at the stereotype of the 'frazzled mom' trying to get everything done and taking care of everyone but herself, I feel some of that creeping in.  

All this has made me wonder if mindfulness is a luxurious notion that can really only be achieved by the few who have renounced worldly desires, and is really hopeless for us laypeople. Thinking about the Buddhist leaders who have influenced my practice, most of them are unmarried men who do not have pressing family obligations. Though most are busy people whose time is sought by practitioners around the world, mindfulness and meditation is what they do, so they naturally must engage in the practice to advise others. While of course this is an obligation in and of itself, how can a 'householder' successfully relate to what Sangha leaders describe (and gently encourage laypeople to practice)?

Taking a deep breath and re-reading what I have written above (after starting the laundry, chopping vegetables, and organizing the diaper bag while my daughter naps, of course) the words that jump out at me in this post are 'achieved' and 'practice'. Unlike much of the tasks and ideas we encounter in daily life, mindfulness is not an item to be checked off a to-do list. Rather, it is a mindset and attitude that we use to approach those items that need doing- and that requires a lot of . . . you guessed it - never-ending practice!

Looking back, I realize now that my wistful (and sleep-deprived) thoughts of 'It feels like I will never be mindful again' indicated that I needed a little bit of a refresher to remind myself what mindfulness really is, and that it can be practiced and attempted (however clumsily or imperfectly) by anyone, anywhere. Whatever is going on in your life, all you really need is the present moment.

Do you have any thoughts to share about mindfulness and/or how you or someone you know may have struggled? Feel free to share in the comments below!
May all beings be happy!