Monday, October 9, 2017

I am a 'bad' Buddhist

In many of my posts I try to use an even, careful tone. This is because I do my best to not assume anything about whoever may be reading BCB and be as inclusive as possible. When I think about the fact that someone who may be searching for information about Buddhism actually happens upon this blog, it is truly humbling. 

However, please do not mistake this statement as an attempt to portray myself as pious or somehow spiritually 'accomplished'. Despite the careful written tone, I do get angry sometimes. Sometimes I feel frustrated and resentful. I can be self-centered and speak harshly, even to those I love. It is often difficult for me to calm my mind and to be grateful for what I have. 

Being pretty familiar with human nature, I also guess that I am probably like many other people.

But how could this be, since, after all- do I not claim to be a Buddhist? Shouldn't I be able to meditate for hours and generate waves of compassion towards every sentient being? Shouldn't I have quenched the internal fires of anger and silenced the biting mental criticism of myself and others? Aren't I a more evolved human being, a gentle, wise vegetarian whose few words are full of love and meaning?

Though this caricature of a 'Buddhist' may seem a little over the top, I do wonder if this kind of imagery has not somehow crept into the collective psyche.  

Why do I say this? Though my experiences may be anecdotal, they are supported by independent events that assert the 'Buddhists are better' stereotype. For example, an outraged acquaintance (who was unaware I practice Buddhism) was discussing atrocities committed by Sinhalese against Tamil people in Sri Lanka*. She ended her statement with a breathless exclamation - ". . . and they are BUDDHISTS!" More recently I have heard similar statements regarding the Buddhist majority in Myanmar versus the Rohinga Muslim minority*. On a personal level, I recall on several occasions being chastised by family members for becoming angry or impatient being punctuated with, " . . . and you're a BUDDHIST!"   

Although I have heard similar exclamations hurled towards holier-than-thou Christians, this bizarre 'higher standard' regarding Buddhists does seem quite pervasive. Is it a bad thing? Probably not terrible, but it may prevent non-Buddhists from seeing Buddhists in a human (and more accurate) light, which could be disillusioning and damaging to mutual understanding down the road. 

So though I don't know how to approach (or even if others have experienced) this 'Saint Buddhist' phenomenon, I will say that in light of the standards by which others may view Buddhists I am definitely a 'bad' one, anger, impatience, harsh speech, meditational ineptness and all. 

However, I can only hope that my readers and those who know me personally would realize that these are the many reasons I practice Buddhism, that its ideas and precepts have been incredibly important aspects of my personal journey, and really have helped me become a more patient, more compassionate person. I have also learned that no matter what our background or philosophy, we are all unified by the simple aspiration of being our best self- Buddhist practice is just one of the many ways of working towards that.
Have you experienced the 'Saint Buddhist' phenomenon (or even espoused this view)? Feel free to share in the comments!

May all beings be happy!  

*For some people, these topics may elicit strong emotions. I am only mentioning them to make a point regarding expectations about Buddhists around the world, and not to assert (or dispute) anything about the conflict/s themselves. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The moment is now

A while ago a dear friend was lamenting the fact that she had not yet found someone to spend her life with. She felt that time has been ticking away, and was also frustrated with the fact that she was 'still' a graduate student. Exasperated and clearly struggling to show a brave face, she exclaimed, "I keep wondering when my life is going to begin!"

This admission surprised me, simply because I have so much admiration for her. Not only talented, intelligent, and hard working, she has a kind heart. She has traveled the world and has had many work and life experiences, which also makes her incredibly interesting and fun to talk to.

So I couldn't help but be taken aback- How could someone who has so much to offer feel this way?

Then I remembered that she was not the only one. A few years ago (also while working on my graduate degree) I also felt like my life had somehow stalled, and that I was in a pretty deep rut. In fact, I remember thinking those very same words!

Of course, having these thoughts is not unusual, and I am sure that many people feel this way every so often. Fast forward to now, almost everything in my life has changed, with some adjustments having been easier than others. Though I no longer feel that I'm in a rut, or that my life has 'not begun', I do sometimes long for simpler times.

Having now seen both sides of this perplexing coin, I am reminded of a short post I wrote the same year I started BCB. It was about climbing the hill near the apartment where I lived during graduate school, where at the end of a long day my tired mind would chant, "almost there, almost there" as I hauled myself up that long hill. After being exposed to many great writings about mindfulness, I decided that it was important to not focus only on the comfy apartment waiting for me, but to also acknowledge the many moments that comprised my effort to get there. I felt that this approach potentially carried a lot of merit with all types of journeys, be they physical, spiritual, or emotional.

As time goes on, we are bound to encounter many peaks and valleys- such is the nature of life. But no matter where we are or what we're doing (or how 'stuck' we may feel) our lives all have begun, existing here and now in the present moment- the most precious of all gifts.

"The present moment contains past and future. The secret of transformation, is in the way we handle this very moment." Thich Nhat Hanh, Understanding Our Mind, 2006
May all beings be happy!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Why the idea of 'minimalism' makes me chuckle

Over the past few years I have admired those who have pared down their possessions to live a simpler, less cluttered life. In this effort, many people have succeeded in becoming debt-free, less driven (and burdened) by 'consumerism'; perhaps even healthier. The 'minimalist' movement has had such an impression on me that I have also begun to follow suit with my own approach, which I like to call "Living Simply". 

However, the humor of this societal (and personal) transformation has not been lost on me. 

Reading about people living in one room with just a futon mattress and a few clothes (or going completely nomadic), I have noticed an unmistakable tone of pride and accomplishment. No doubt this is because people are excited about what minimalism has done for them, and wish to encourage others.

But what makes me laugh is that back in the day, these "lifestyles" of frugality were the norm. In fact, for most people it was what was called living (we also know that this- and even less- is still the norm for millions in the developing world).

According to many minimalists, the benefits of choosing minimalism include promoting sustainable living and reaching out to those in need. I believe these benefits are real. Since this is a choice within our current conditions (which are relatively cushy), there might be some justification for those attempting to live more simply to give ourselves a tiny little pat on the back.  

But I would also say not to take ourselves too seriously. Instead, I think it best  to just be thankful for what we have right now (and the choices we have), without attachment or aversion. After all, for those of us fortunate enough have access to education, vaccinations, safe water, and religious freedom, these things, while not physical possessions, are all 'things' we like to have- and would not want to part with. 

So in regarding paring down my possessions as some great personal accomplishment, I will remain cautious. Although I might feel 'skilled' in my effort to live with less, making this effort while in the midst of such abundance and stability also gives me yet another opportunity to smile amusedly in spite of myself.

"Whatever precious jewel there is in the heavenly worlds, there is nothing comparable to one who is Awakened." ~ The Buddha (Sutta Nipata) 
What are your thoughts about the current trends in minimalism? What quirks have you noticed?

May all beings be happy!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

'God is watching us'

A short while ago, my husband, daughter, and I were spending time with a dear friend. Ever philosophical, our friend has previously disputed the distinctions made between the myriad of deities that people call 'God' (or Goddess, as the case may be).

In fact, he goes as far as to facetiously call them 'brands'. Given the divisive manner in which many in the 'spiritual' hierarchy with a lot to gain (and a lot to lose) play the 'my god, your god' game, this description resonated with me.

But last time we spoke, he put a more personal spin on the discussion. Looking at our little one sitting in her high chair and smiling as she gummed a Cheerio, he reminded us of the truth that we know so well but don't often consider: no matter where we are or what we are doing, she is always watching us, and learning from the things we do.

Of course children have watched and learned from their parents since time immemorial, and other species do the same. But the our friend's reasoning was based on his rejection of the notion that some omnipresent 'being' is constantly checking up on us, weighing our good actions with the not-so-good. In his view there is really no need for such surveillance, because it is already an integral part of family life. "She will do what you do and say what you say; she is your conscience and a clear, pure reflection of you as a person, not just as a parent. 'God' is watching us through our children's eyes."

Whether someone is agnostic, deeply spiritual, or spiritually ambivalent, I feel this idea is an extremely powerful (and for parents, perhaps universal) reminder to be mindful of our thoughts, words, and behavior.

When watching after yourself, you watch after others. When watching after others, you watch after yourself." ~ The Buddha (Samyutta Nikaya)
What did you think of this post? Is there a reminder that you use in your daily life to steer yourself towards wholesome conduct? Please share in the comments!

Delight in heedfulness! Guard well your thoughts! ~ The Buddha (Dhammapada) 

May all beings be happy!

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! šŸ˜‡ 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!   

Friday, March 10, 2017

In the interim

Every once in a while most of us who blog have to write a post like this one, explaining our prolonged absence :) Over the past year or so I have been incredibly busy with my job, and in December 2016 my husband and I welcomed our newborn daughter into our lives. 

As you can imagine, the past few months have been a whirlwind, but in a good way. I know that the birth of my daughter and becoming a parent will have a profound effect on the way I experience life, including my spiritual journey. Though I do not anticipate BCB becoming a 'mommy blog' (there are so many others out there able to do that so much better!) I anticipate that my journey as a new mom will most definitely temper how I approach my posts. At the very least, I know they will be shorter :)

Have you had a major life event that affected the way you approach your writing/spiritual journey/life? Please share in the comments!

May all beings be happy!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Review of Mindful Birthing by Nancy Bardacke

For many women, giving birth is arguably one of the most momentous events in their lives. In an attempt to prepare, many read a variety of books on the subject of labor and childbirth. After perusing a number of different titles to read before the arrival of our daughter, "Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond" caught my eye.

Written by Nancy Bardacke, a nurse-midwife and mindfulness teacher, each chapter focuses on different aspects of childbirth and caring for (and adjusting to) a newborn baby. The thing that struck me most was the chapter about pain. Often the top-most concern of moms-to-be, Nancy thoroughly describes the physiological feedback loop created by oxytocin to generate contractions during labor. When the mother is free from fear and agitation, the feedback loop works its best, and oxytocin can do its job. However, when the mother is afraid and/or extremely stressed, the excess adrenaline produced actually interferes with the process. 

Combined with these biologically-based explanations, Nancy's focus on mindfulness was truly insightful. She emphasizes to not be affected by previous contractions or anticipate the next, but only focus on the present moment. This also includes the time between contractions, which Nancy describes as being restful~ even blissful! Moreover, this approach lowers the possibility that stress and fear will disrupt an otherwise uncomplicated labor.  

I am sure that there are many other great books out there to prepare for labor, but Mindful Birthing was the only one I read because I felt it had all I needed (after all, working -or muddling- towards mindfulness is the way I have chosen to live my life!). Writing about this incredibly personal subject, I emphasize that every woman must choose how she will handle the intensity of labor. But looking back on my own birth story (pitocin induction at 41 weeks), I marvel at the 'miracle of mindfulness' and its role in guiding me through one of the most intense but also proud and transformational personal experiences.  

Is there a mindfulness/spiritually based mindset that helped you or someone you know work through childbirth? Please contribute in the comments below!

May all beings be happy!