the angels of our better nature

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No fear mudra

 

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Abraham Lincoln, Great Speeches / Abraham Lincoln: with Historical Notes by John Grafton

When Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister, he appealed that we allow ourselves the influence of the “angels of our better nature”. Today he published, on behalf of the Canadian government and its peoples, this congratulatory statement:

Ottawa, Ontario
November 9, 2016

The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, today issued the following statement on the result of the US Presidential Election:

“On behalf of the Government of Canada, I would like to congratulate Donald J. Trump on his election as the next President of the United States.

“Canada has no closer friend, partner, and ally than the United States. We look forward to working very closely with President-elect Trump, his administration, and with the United States Congress in the years ahead, including on issues such as trade, investment, and international peace and security.

“The relationship between our two countries serves as a model for the world.  Our shared values, deep cultural ties, and strong integrated economies will continue to provide the basis for advancing our strong and prosperous partnership.”

Social media reactions have been mixed: some positive and some angry that we could even think we have values in common with the American President-elect. I can truly understand the fear and anxiety.  However, there is a deeper truth in the Prime Minister’s statement that we cannot afford to ignore: This is not about individual values – that path has lead us far astray from our true values.

As cousin nations, we do share a common set of values. As global peoples, we do share the same values. We wish for peace, for respect, for kindness, for compassion, for safety, for love.

We deeply wish for the liberation of all beings from their suffering.

In our fear and worry for the future, for our children and grandchildren, for our friends and families, we cannot afford to lose sight of this.

Because, simply, this is the moment for which we have been practising.

invitations from the buddha, rsvp: book review of Gowans’ philosophy of the buddha

Christopher Gowans’ Philosophy of the Buddha gives me some hope that I might get a handle on the convolutions philosophers tend to put into explaining the fundamentals of Buddhist thought. It’s well over 10 years old in print and I suspect some challenges have arisen around his explanation of non-self though I have yet to find anything via my oracle Google. I did however come across an essay by Gowans on Buddhist Well-Being that outlines his approach to this intersection of Western philosophy and Buddhist ideas.

Gowans’ interest in this meeting place of thoughts and ideas introduces his essay:

First, what is the proper philosophical elucidation of Buddhist ideas? Second, in what ways, if any, do these ideas relate to ideas in Western philosophy (contemporary as well as historical)? Finally, to what extent might these two domains—Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy—learn from one another and challenge one another? That is, to what extent might they critically interact so as to advance our philosophical understanding?

The first point – the proper elucidation of Buddhist ideas – is the gist of this book where

(the) first goal is an accurate and insightful understanding of the Buddha’s teaching. We should assume neither that a perfectly objective account is possible nor that any interpretation is as good as another.

Gowans is insistent throughout his book that we are held tightly by our own perspective and, while not necessarily a negative thing, it would be naive to believe that objectivity would be possible. That being said, he does an excellent job of guiding us down the intricate path of Buddhist ideas and principles. Where the interpretations are likely to be convoluted or conflated with Western ideas, he sets up the investigation so that ideas are challenged not as a means of showing off but rather to truly tease apart the complex layers of understanding. His strategy is particularly helpful in working through the concepts of impermanence, non-self and suffering where he holds up the objections and the support all the while questioning the answers.

As for that thorny issue of non-self, Gowans does a remarkable job of breaking it down into substance-self and process-self; the former being a belief of the Buddhism-curious (he calls them stream-observers) that various aspects of form and experience confirms the existence of a distinct substance with an identity (think: sun and plant) while the latter proposes a self “consisting of over-lapping and ever-changing aggregates (p78 Kindle edition)” which have “no independent reality but do have a form of dependent reality (p60 Kindle edition).” Even more so is his explanation of dependent origination which includes imagery of aggregates as “neighboring sandbars…each is a unified nexus of processes that is part of the overall network of processes (p81 Kindle edition)” and the challenge of explaining causal conditioning and freedom to choose action “without recourse to distinctness” of the component parts.

After establishing the underlying Buddhist thought, Gowans tackles the Four Noble Truths and Eight-fold Path with the same steady and unrelenting intensity of examination all the while returning to a common sense rendering of the teachings.  These two sections of his book contain some of the best and most clearly written explorations of the core teachings of Buddhism. And they are enhanced by a tone and quality of writing that is absent of the writer’s need to show he is doing what he is doing.

The final chapter is perhaps the sweetest. In it, Gowans proposes the Buddha’s teachings are an invitation to live selflessly (the theme of ethics runs through all the chapters.

“The first invitation asks us to think about the quality of our life as a whole in a fundamental and sustained way.”

“The second invitation asks us to consider why the fragility of our lives is a source of dissatisfaction.” (Go beyond the obvious that we don’t have what we want, don’t want what we have and get confused regularly by all of it.)

“The third invitation brings us to a crucial juncture. What, the Buddha asks us, can be done to overcome this dissatisfaction?” (The answer can be one of despair, frustration or hope.)

“The (fourth) invitation asks us to reflect on why fulfillment of desires is so important to us.”

“The (fifth) invitation (and hardest to accept) is to consider whether piercing through the illusion of selfhood might reveal not nothing, but…everything.”

“The final invitation asks us to discover on our own whether there is any truth in what he says.”

Gowans book makes for a good introduction to Buddhism and a training in critical thinking that many practitioners would find useful, especially in these days of “quotable Buddhism” and a leaning to fundamentalist-type clinging to what we think is what the Buddha taught. This is definitely a keeper on the book shelf.

…and finally, coming home

To reunite ourselves with our soul, to engage fully in our lives beyond the boundaries of work-and-life, we must cultivate three ways of being and they are aligned with the three clusters of the Eightfold Path: Ethics, Mindfulness, and Wisdom.  The first is trust in our values, our Ethics.  When we bring ourselves into alignment with our aspirations, we detach from needing specific outcomes to define our worth or fire our passion.  Breath and body are united; soul animates self and is one with it.  We are in constant conversation with ourselves about our intentions and whether we are falling out of alignment with our aspirations. In the life crisis that appears to be generated from our work environment, we have that opportunity to step back and re-unite with our breath, with our wholeness, to look beyond the dualistic view of work and the rest of our life.  We train ourselves to trust our values and the way in which they manifest as actions.

Second, we cultivate Mindfulness or awareness in the system we are embedded.  Whyte (2001) states that our purpose is to become the captain of our own ship, to cultivate captaincy that is not hinged on any specific person or circumstance for safety and fulfillment.  We must become sensitive to the nuances of change in our environment and respond with only what is necessary.  As Whyte describes, we must from the edge of our experience be able to see deep into the interior to know what is being asked of us and for us.  The art of applying the correct dose to a situation requires clarity of vision and a compassionate hand.  We must become wise to systemic nature of our lives and thereby avoid becoming absorbed into the system itself.

Finally, we nurture our Wisdom by opening to our experience, by setting out on seamless new adventures wholeheartedly.  Work, career, titles, and functionality no longer define our identity.  Home and personal life are no longer defended castles but part of the entire seascape in which we navigate, come to shore, and set out again.  We disengage from producing objects and outcomes in favour of productivity in relationships. Our journey within which we enact our values and the fruits of our compassionate attention becomes the means by which we live our aspirations.  We live in alignment with who we are independent of whatever label we carry or space we occupy.  Leaving behind the concept of work-and-life, we are free to engage fully in life’s work.

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro, ©2012

meeting the demons

Right Mindfulness is the last node of the Eightfold Path in our mandala of practice. I was reading a dharma sister’s publication in the new journal called Mindfulness where she wrote about her mindfulness practice and how it helped to deal with her husband’s illness and death.  I’ve never met (physically) Karen Hilsberg or, when he was alive, her husband, but connected with them deeply through correspondences for a short year before he died.  After his death, Karen and I continued our correspondence both as ordained members in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing and as mental health professionals.  Karen writes of the various practices that sustained her through the ordeal of managing the strain and eventual loss of her beloved partner as well as holding their children close through it all.  I hope you can access the article; it seems available to the public.  It is a rare piece of hard-hitting writing that manifests a deep mindfulness practice as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches without any of the white-washing or naiveté I often read in articles about personal journeys in mindfulness.

As I write this, I have Karen’s husband’s article in front of me; he had sent it along when he and I were discussing the challenges of bringing mindfulness practices into psychology.  He wrote:

One thing I dream of is a time when in the context of work, these practices will be so much a part of the institution that before a treatment planning meeting, the treatment team will take some mindful breaths together and set an intention prior to conducting the meeting.  This would help each person at the meeting to move beyond their own tendency to be on automatic pilot and to truly experience the individual as an individual, rather than seeing the purpose of the meeting as a task that must be accomplished.

I have kept his article on the shelf over my desk under a statue of Jizo Bodhisattva since I first received it.  It reminds me over and over again that many of us share this dream of moving past our autopilot and into a space that is beyond labels.  Although his dream addresses our view of the patient who is the focus of the treatment planning meeting, it applies equally – if not more – to each of us around the table who get caught in the auto-pilot of our professional identities.

In the personal realm, there are all these autopilot identities too.  The identity of well-being, recognition, and many others become entrenched as rights to which we feel entitled.  As I read through Karen’s article and looked into my own life, I could see the ways in which mindfulness practice tore away the need to have a limited experience of life.  Karen writes of diving deep into practice – the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, the Four Noble Truths, the teachings of impermanence, relational self, and letting go – and it provided her the freedom to be with what was unfolding.  A dharma teacher who lead a day of mindfulness at our sangha described equanimity as freedom; when we can be with someone just the way they are in this moment, non-preferentially, non-judgementally, we give them the freedom to be.  Just be.  And in that freedom a hundred thousand miracles occur.

The precepts, engagement, and vision of our lives make up the practice of Mindfulness, a way of meeting the demons that visit regularly.  It folds into itself being both a node in the mandala of the Eightfold Path and the over-arching robe of liberation that we put on each moment.

I bow deeply to my dharma sister, Karen, and thank her for her wisdom and generosity in bringing her practice to all of us.  May the merit of her journey and her husband’s constant presence in our lives bring freedom from suffering to all beings.

Thank you for practising,

Genju

chaplaincy – part deux

The tempo is ramping up.  On Saturday I leave for Upaya again.  Chaplaincy, Part Deux: ordinations and milestone check-ins.  First, I get to bear witness to the ordination of the next flight of Chaplains and another dharma friend’s aspiration manifesting. Heart-filling stuff and I’m packing extra tissues!  Then, there will be the various milestone check-ins. How this all serves to illustrate Right Concentration may not be immediately (or ever) apparent.

I’ve been poring over my Chaplaincy handbook which is meticulously organized with dividers keeping general information, forms, and records in their little intellectual ghettos.  Do you ever wonder how we can be so particular about separating some things from others but not really care if others mash together?  Intellectual property, for me, demands an intricate system of organization but vegetables do not.  A glop of turnips, carrots, sweet and red potatoes served with gallons of vegetarian gravy can transport me to the fourth jhana.  Put a piece of paper in the wrong end of my folder and it’s blaspheming the Dewey Decimal System.

I have attended with diligence (effort) to Chaplaincy which looms, however, as a mash of readings, writings, project development, and hands-on work.  My attention is fragmented and my concentration is firm.  This distinction is often lost when we talk about the wandering mind.  I describe it as allowing the background programs to do their work without interfering with them while I get the foreground work done without (too much) intrusion.  On the cushion, it takes the form of establishing steadiness of presence.  Off the cushion, it is a dance with the Five Hindrances – restlessness when things aren’t congealing in my brain, sloth & torpor (my favourite twins!) when I think I’ve got it wired but really am just avoiding the deeper work,  and desire for more and more (books).

These entanglements wove through 7 reflection papers, 4 field trips, 4 book reports and an Individual Learning Plan.  I had a hard time with doing a book report  – on one book.  Who reads just one book?  How do you comment on its impact and relevance if you take a book off the shelf and treat it like a unique organism with no history or family?  So I developed an approach of  “Consolidated Books Reported Upon.”  It required a lot more work but it was more fun to do; and, it was a practice of allowing attention to roam while concentration stood its ground.

The Individual Learning Plan was an example of fixed attention and concentration rampant.  Did we get a little hyper-focused on consuming all things Buddhist?  On the other hand, it was well-intended.  Goal 4 was to “develop a regular writing program” and included daily 108ZB blog entries that explored Buddhist teachings, developing the Ox-Herding pictures as a framework for therapy, and completing the Mindfulness Clinic Guidebook.  I think I’ve managed the blog piece and the Ox-Herding-as-treatment-framework has been lots of fun.  It’s on stand-by as a potential project along with the Clinic Guidebook.  Or maybe I can integrate the two and then I can…  Oops…  Breathing in…

Goal 2 was an aspiration to work with a dukkha magnet organization, offering in-house training both as part of an internship and in assessing the impact of increased mindfulness in preventing burn out.  After a year of negotiations, it was clear that we had mis-matched concepts of well-being.  This was less a loss of relationship than a letting go of my assumptions of being mutually invested: I tend to think everyone has the same view and thinking when it comes to wanting what’s best for each other.  Lesson learned, and learned well.  The nice thing is that the Burn Out Resiliency course is taxiing onto the runway for a May take-off in the clinic and there is a never-ending line-up of organizations where the impact of dukkha exposure can be met and assessed.  I kept a teacher’s log here on the course we delivered at the hospital where I’m doing my internship.  This clinic blogging evolved into an awesome exchange with the folks down at UCSD who had put up a similar teacher’s log of their course.  Actually, Steven Hickman had inspired the idea in the first place so all credit goes to him.  In conversations with each other, we explored our growth edge and a potential of mutually nourishing each other in our practice.  When you meet the Buddha on the road to Upaya, know it.

Thank you for practising,

Genju

being a lamp

We are coming down the home stretch of the Eightfold Path.  In my notes, the eight practices are clustered into three groups: Wisdom (Right View, Right Thinking), Ethics (Right Action, Livelihood, Right Speech), and Concentration (Right Effort, Right Concentration, Right Mindfulness).  Each cluster is also the skillful means to deal with ignorance, ill-will, and craving, respectively.  Together they form a mandala of practice by supporting each other so that a deeper relationship to self and others can emerge.

As part of looking into Right Effort, I want to stop and breathe a moment at the end of the cluster of practices that comprise an ethical stance to living well. Shining the light on my practice, I’ve been asking myself about my intention as I engage in a particular action or speech.  I’ve also been asking myself if my response is going to encourage the other person to counter with unskilfulness.  I know this sounds like I may be taking too much responsibility for the actions of others, getting into their heads.  A famous psychologist is reported to have said that we need to stop being our patient’s frontal lobe.  In other words, we need to respect each person’s ability to do what is exacted of them in the moment (note: not expected but exacted).

That is true.  And the flip side of allowing someone to find their skilfulness is respecting the ease with they can slide into unskilfulness.  Still, the cycle of unskilfulness (or what I like to call reactive bludgeoning) has to be broken somewhere and who better to break it than the person who constantly is confronted with needing to practice breaking these links.  In that sense, I believe it means me – and you and you and you over there.  Effort is the burden of awareness; once the consequences of being in an ever-widening circle of relationships comes into view, we can’t claim blindness.

Oh, about the nun with the lamp.  Frank gave me that when we first met and were in that buying-cutsey-things-that-seem-so-meaningful stage.  I was quite affronted (and didn’t hide it) but his explanation was that it seemed just like “me”: facing everything with a sense of amazement.  I don’t know about that.  Yet over the years, I’ve sort of warmed up to her especially after I noticed she’s wielding a lamp.

Thank you for practising,

Genju

an expression of self

The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self,
or it can be a source of suffering for you and others.

Thich Nhat Hanh on Right Livelihood – The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

OK.  I’ve written and deleted this post three times because life has been intervening and offering new perspectives on the practice of earning a living.  It started with an early morning phone call from the nursing home where my mother has lived for four and a half years.  Vascular dementia has painfully eroded her capacity to discern between threat and safety resulting in raging violence when her caregivers try to give her a bath or cut her nails.

The phone call was a variation on that theme with a twist.  Mum was having severe chest pains that had begun the evening before.  When I showed up she was in full rant, most of it unintelligible because of her aphasia.  But occasionally a word or exclamation would bellow out unmistakable in its intent both to frighten us off and to summon help.  “You’re killing me!”  “Whore!”  “Dirty woman!”  You have to understand that my mother is 4′ 11″, 93 years old, and not much heavier than a load of groceries – with a right hook to shame a heavyweight boxer.

We needed to change “everything,” the care givers told me.  Clothing, bed covers, blankets, everything. I was the drone: hold her down here, turn her over and HOLD!  Now turn the other way, flip, pull, tuck the sheets in.  The two women patiently explained every step to my mother.  She watched them intently as they stroked her cheek and said: Julia, we’re going to…  Now we have to…. Julia, I need to…  Then, as they proceeded to do what had to be done, she screamed words at them I don’t think any mother should know.  In the melee, one care giver took it in the temple (right on her bar bell piercing – that must have hurt like hell!).  The other caught a glancing blow on her cheek.  I think I escaped but there’s a soreness on my upper arm that wasn’t there before.  Working swiftly the three of us managed to undress, wash, and dress her; then we managed to change the bedding and the blankets.

When it was over, Mum stroked the cheek of one of the care givers, allowed herself to be tucked in and, Frank having tentatively returned to the room, took his hand in what he said was a bone crushing grip.  Drifting in and out of sleep, she turned and asked me, “How is your Mummy, dear?”

I started this post quoting paragraphs about the indeterminacy of Right Livelihood, about earning a living in ways that may be damaging to others, about doing what must be done even if it violates the precepts.  There are many words and analyses dissecting Buddhist principles, ethics, and skillful living.  I deleted them all in the end because I don’t think they capture the practice of Right Livelihood as powerfully as two women did that morning, doing what was clearly distressing to them and doing just what needed to be done.  They seem to embody Thich Nhat Hanh’s term “supporting” oneself which offers more than just the idea of an exchange of services with an eye out for bad karma.

Thank you for practising,

Genju