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