practicing wellbeing

Previous: clear waters

The Practice of Wellbeing

Living Well

The practice of living well is simple.  Choose the actions that sustain physical health and joy.  Engage in the activities that are useful and beneficial to ourselves and others.  Adjust and adapt when conditions change and those activities are no longer useful or beneficial.  When we are on autopilot and catch ourselves hopping on a train, we can remember our intention to practice wellbeing and return to that station with ease.

The practice of living well is not easy.  We tend to be distracted or hyper-focused, demanding or disconnected, clinging or disinterested.  We hold beliefs that we are entitled to certain things in our life that are also a measure of our acceptability or success.  And often the actions that grant us those things have a cost.  We feel off kilter, off center, tipping too far over into distress and ill health.  We become reactive and forget our skillfulness in living well.  Our lives are filled with trains that take us nowhere or to destinations that are unpleasant.

Wellbeing is not the absence of illness or distress.  It is the recognition that we are tipping over, remembering where we felt balanced, and returning that center point.  When we engage in our actions with awareness of what is useful, beneficial and the cost of our choices, we are practicing a skillful way to return to the center.  The stronger the skill in remembering and recovering that center, the more skillful we become in at practicing wellbeing.

That process of noticing, remembering, and recovering embody the practice of mindfulness.  We pay attention, become aware, recall past consequences and skillful actions, and make choices in this moment that are based in our belief that living well is the only act of kindness possible for ourselves and others.

A poem by Naomi Shihab Nye:

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth
What you held in you hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night the plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye

Thank you for practicing,

Genju

transparency of water, part II

Previous: trains to nowhere

Wellbeing

The Transparency of Water

Water is fascinating in its qualities.  It is unconstrained yet containable.  It exerts power yet can be held in our cupped hands.  It never actually separates from the mud but is not attached to it.  It is transparent yet reflects everything in its environment.  It holds all manner of flora and fauna yet does not take on the nature of what it carries.  It can be cloud, rain, fog, steam, ice, and liquid.  It nourishes and is crucial for life.

And so is our true nature.

To each thing its own
True deepest inner nature:

Water does not think
Of itself as the consort
Of the bright moonlight it hosts.

Sogi

When we see only the muddiness in the glass, we forget that the turmoil, the setbacks, the feelings of loss and rejection are being held in the liquid of our true self.  We identify with the turmoil and become fearful that it will define who we are.  Our tendency is to try and break through, move past, look beyond the confusing mess in front of us.  So often, participants tell us, “This is not me.  Before the depression (anxiety, cancer), I was not like this.”  We become distressed because we believe we have lost the purity of water (the real “me”).  We lose our sense of direction and purpose because there is no clarity.

In reality, the clarity is still there.  The nature of our true self, like the water that holds the mud, is transparent so that we can see clearly what is ailing us. The water itself, our true nature, doesn’t become opaque.  It remains clear in order for us to look deeply into what we are actually experiencing.  Its transparency allows us to recognize the nature of the mud and to investigate it carefully.  What ever our pain, our true nature is not tainted by it.  When we can learn to hold the pain we feel the way water contains the mud and not being afraid of what it means about us, we are able to peel away the assumptions and the fears it generates.  What are the real issues of this illness, lost job, or relationship?  What is within my control and what is not?  What am I really feeling: is it anger, withdrawal or disconnection; or is it hurt, rejection or loss?

Our ultimate aspiration is to realize our true nature is constant and not tainted by the pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant life experiences.   To do that, we learn how to look deeply into our experiences so that we can develop clarity and steadiness in the face of turmoil.  We start by learning different mindfulness skills such as meditation which help us calm and settle our body and mind. As we become skillful, we see the ways in which we live distracted and disconnected from our body, feelings, and thinking.  We begin to reconnect body and mind so that we are in an appreciative partnership again.  We remember our true self.

Next: Practicing wellbeing

trains to nowhere

Previous: Autopilot

Trains to Nowhere

Going down peripheral paths mindlessly is like getting on the wrong train in our mind.  And when we’re on autopilot, we tend to get on trains we ought to let go by.  Imagine standing in a train station, standing on a platform.  We want to take the train to a town nearby and we have a bunch of tickets in our hand.  The trains are not very clearly marked and sometimes they seem to be going to where you want to go.  A train pulls in and, automatically, we hop on.  We’re on autopilot.  A few stations along the way, we realize we’re on the wrong train.  The scenery doesn’t look familiar.  Or maybe it does look familiar but it’s not pleasant, some place we’ve been to and want to avoid revisiting.  Having acted without awareness, we find ourselves in a state of mind we never intended to visit and the journey back may take a while.

We’re born with a large number of train tickets and if we’re not mindful about which train to get on, we can spend much of our time wandering the backroads of our experiences and feeling exhausted from having to find our way back home.  The thinking patterns we encounter when we feel anxious or depressed is typical of what we mean by “getting on the train.”  In one moment, we may be feeling sad or blue; in the next moment we’re caught in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.  Mindfulness practices allow us to attend to the nature and direction of the train that pulls in to our station.  In terms of emotional experience, mindfulness practices allow us to be aware of the early stirrings of a feeling and see clearly our choice of actions.

Jobs are lost, finances are depleted, friends and family members do leave us.  Illnesses are terminal and pain can be unrelenting.  These are events that have painful consequences for our health, functionality, and relationships.  When we’re deep in such pain, it’s hard to believe this is only the surface of the challenge to perceptions.  At a deeper level, when we are in painful times, our sense of who we are is challenged.  Our definition of who we are, our belief of who we would have been under certain circumstances, and our trust in our capacity to effect change in an individualistic way have been shaken.  Not only is our glass of mud and water stirred up and the vision of our true nature occluded, we are terrified that things will never be the same again.  When we engage in a practice of mindfulness we learn to see clearly that one part of this experience is mud and to remember that the other part is still pure water.

Next: Wellbeing

autopilot

Previous: muddy waters

Autopilot

Losing sight of who we are is an easy skill to develop.  In fact, we tend to practice clouding our vision as a daily way of being.  In order to get things done, we live much of our lives on autopilot.  We walk into a room and forget why we went there.  We go to the grocery store for milk, buy a bunch of stuff, and forget to buy the milk.  We set out on our daily drive to work and can’t remember much of the trip there.  We feel frustrated with our aging or preoccupation.

Bring to mind your day.  When you woke up, were you aware of that moment of growing awareness of what it feels like to be in bed or were you already caught in the activities of the day to come?  As you were showering, were you feeling the water on your body or were you already wondering how to get breakfast ready for yourself, your partner and/or your children?  At breakfast, were you already in the car?  When driving, were you already at that meeting with the boss or colleague that you were dreading?  At any given time in the day, we are likely living a time zone or two away.  Yet, if asked, we would probably say that we’re very aware of what we’re doing and where we’re going.  We have maps, lists, plans, and beeping reminders on our computers or phones to tell us where we are in time and space.  In fact, we get indignant if we’re told we’re not paying attention.

Just as the eye cannot see itself and the hand cannot grasp itself, it is hard for us to be aware of who we are in each moment.  The busy mind carries us away at the speed of thought and we live in a world where that busy-ness is valued as something positive.  At the same time, multitasking and rapid information processing is a necessity in our fast-paced world.

The problem is not that so much is going on in this moment.  That’s the nature of mind; it’s a busy place that’s been described as being like a monkey that’s drunk and been stung by a bee.  It swings rather wildly at times and there’s no predicting where it will end up.  Problems arise when the peripheral issues trip up the primary intention.

Next: trains

muddy waters

I’m not sure if I’ll have internet connections over the next two weeks.  Then again, diving into the Upaya Chaplaincy Program may not leave me with much time to submit missives from the front!  So, anticipating the latter, I’ve set up the first chapter of the guidebook for our mindfulness program as a series of posts.  I hope you find it useful.


How mysterious!
The lotus remains unstained

By its muddy roots,

Delivering shimmering
Bright jewels from common dew.

Sojo Henjo

Muddy Waters

Our mental life is like a glass filled with water and mud.  Sometimes the contents are still and settled.  We can live adequately with the fact that parts of our life are clear and other parts are mucky with slime and ooze.  In fact, many Buddhist teachers say that slime and ooze is crucial to our personal growth.  Lotuses begin their life in the mud, cradled and nourished there until the blooms rise above the water clean and untainted by the messiness under water.  It’s an inspiring image because most of us aspire to rise above all the inner turmoil and “ickiness” to be beautiful.  We want to be able to roll with the punches, share in the joys of others, and take in a beautiful sunset.

Sometimes, the contents of the glass are stirred up.  When we experience anger, anxiety, depression, frustration, grief, loss, or some challenge to our perception of ourselves or others, mud and water mix to form a system that is murky.  In these moments, we lose sight of the clarity of water and all we see is a mess of mud.  Whatever we have encountered seems to be the entirety of our being.

In the poem, The Guesthouse, Rumi asks us to invite in as guests depression, meanness, dark thoughts, shame, and malice as a way of learning from these experiences.  However, when we are overcome with such muddiness, it feels like these visitors have taken up every nook and cranny of our mind with no room left for love, compassion, joy or kindness.  In fact, we can become quite convinced that the clarity of the water that we saw over the mud was an illusion and the muddy mixture is the absolute reality.  We come to believe the worst of whoever has hurt us.  The roadblock in our career path takes on monumental proportions.  The consequence of a lost contract or upset client becomes a catastrophe that will threaten our lifestyle.  The end of a relationship or of good health seems like the end of our life.  In that mental state, we take our unskillful actions as evidence of our unworthiness.

Next: Autopilot

transparency of water

<– Previous: finding home

Many teachers point out that our suffering is crucial to our transformation.  Lotuses begin their life in the mud.  We are asked to be patient as we steep in that mud, have faith in the nutrients of the slime and ooze of our attachments.  I’m ok with slime and ooze.  But I’ve struggled with faith (maybe I wouldn’t have if I had read Sharon Salzberg’s book more attentively?).  Faith requires me to accept that there is something possible; it also requires me to be at ease with change.  That is much to ask of someone in whose life change is just a harbinger of more pain.  I need to have faith in something more calming.

Contemplating the nature of mind and self, we know the quality of our mind is as if we have stirred up a glass of water mixed with mud (slime and ooze, again).  Left alone, the mud settles and we can see the water clearly.  That clarity is the true nature of mind.  As I contemplate this glass of muddy water, I am aware it is so frequently stirred up that I may as well just call it what it is: muddy water.  And yet, whatever water may contain, it is always clear.  Water does not possess the mud; it does not cling to it.  Water does not obscure the mud; it does not become an obstacle to looking deeply.

The transparency of water is the very reason we can see the mud, see the settling, see the clarity whether or not it splits into water and mud (which it doesn’t).  Even in the lower part that is mud, it is just that: clear as mud.  It is held by water.  The transparency of water provides us with clarity of the nature of our muddiness.  It is always clear; we are always pure.  It is always Home.

Thank you, Jack, for practicing,

Genju