Tagged: Practice

Lessons Learned, 2013 Edition

Change people’s hearts and their minds will follow. In other words, you have to change people’s hearts before you can change their minds.

I’m more important to make a connection than to be precise or correct.

We have an extraordinary ability to ensure that our needs are met. This is fundamentally an emotional processes, not a rational one.

People are, above else, social creatures. We deeply need each other to survive, but we also often harbor great fears about revealing our fundamental selves.

Life is complicated. And yet can be reduced to the utter simplicity that we have a limited time on this Earth and should use that time as wisely as possible.

We may have more advanced technology, but we human nature hasn’t fundamentally changed. We have basically the same challenges we have for hundreds, probably thousands of years. There are patterns to these problems and studying them gives us insight into how to approach them.

Sometimes people you love die and it’s awful.

Sometimes people you love amaze and astound you and it’s wonderful.

Good friends are invaluable.

Cultivate the relationships that nourish you. Let go of the ones that don’t.

Our Vows

These are the vows that Sherri and I made to each other during our ceremony yesterday. I thought it would be nice to share them here (you can also read the text of the entire ceremony).

Shared Vows (based on the Five Grave Buddhist Precepts)

In the practice of our marriage, I vow to affirm, cherish and protect the lives of all sentient beings.

In the practice of our marriage, I vow to be generous with my time, energy and material resources and to take only what is freely given.

In the practice of our marriage, I vow to be aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct and to cultivate my responsibility to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society.

In the practice of our marriage, I vow to manifest truth, to cultivate loving speech and deep listening. I will refrain from using words of discord and will make every attempt to resolve conflict, great and small.

In the practice of our marriage, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming.

Sherri’s Vows

I will always remember seeing you on the first day of 2008. It was merely the third time I had seen you in person, but in the bright light of early afternoon I suddenly knew with certainty that my life was about to change in a significant way.

So it did, and here we are today in front of friends and relations. All of us gathered to honor the power of publicly taking vows to love, honor and cherish one another. It has been a mad dash to get to this dazzling finish, complete with unexpected news, arguments, wild passion, laughter, and tears. I’m told this is perfectly ordinary even though it feels to me rather extraordinary.

In addition to the precepts, which I have vowed to make a fundamental part of the practice of my marriage with you, I offer these vows from my heart:

  • I vow to nurture unbridled joy in equal measure with gravitas.
  • I vow to great each day with loving-kindness.
  • I vow to nourish my health so that we may explore many more years together.
  • I vow to create art, write, sing and cultivate playfulness together with you.
  • I vow to admit when I am wrong.
  • I vow to offer you cheer, humor, deep listening, and wise counsel. Whenever needed.
  • I vow to challenge myself and you so we continue to grow fully into who we can be.
  • I vow to read you poetry.

For my birthday last year you gave me a collection of Rumi’s poetry translated by Coleman Barks; an edition I did not have. It had been an amazing day spent celebrating my birthday and you fell asleep early. I stayed awake longer to read poems and enjoy my cake. One poem in particular really caught me; I knew I wanted to say some of the words from it to you at our wedding. Although I feel rather presumptuous playing with Rumi’s words, I do so as an act of love and from a deep honoring of the original poem, “The Self We Share”. These words especially speak to me of you and of this moment when written in this way:

The Prayer of Each

You are the source of my life.
You separate essence from mud.
You honor my soul.
You bring rivers from the mountain springs.
You brighten my eyes.
The wine you offer takes me out of myself into the self we share.

Doing that is religion.

I am a prayer.
You’re the amen.

Christie’s Vows

My dearest Sherri: You are one of the most generous, compassionate and courageous spirits I have ever met. From the beginning, you opened your heart wide to me and while cautious at first, I have learned to take great refuge in your presence.

In addition the precepts we have already shared, I offer a few of my own vows:

Because our life together will not always be easy, I vow to meet challenges in our relationship with a sense of compassion and adventure.

Because our family is but one piece in a very large puzzle. I vow to live a life of service to you, to our marriage and to our community.

Because while love is not scarce, many resources are, I vow to make sure you always have the things you need most such as food, water, shelter and art supplies. I vow to utilize our resources wisely.

Because I want to spend the most amount of time possible with you and grow old together, I vow to care for my body and mind.

Because play is just as important as work, I vow to cultivate playfulness, laughter and lightness in our relationship.

Because what I was hiding, deep inside, you brought out into the light, and even thought it is terrifying at times, I vow to stand bravely in the light of your love.

My dearest Sherri, You are the first person who made me truly feel loved. I look forward to sharing a life of practice with you and I am truly honored that you are making this commitment with me here today, in front of our friends and family.

Exchange of Rings

May our marriage be nurturing, intimate and supportive throughout the years. May our marriage be a refuge to us as we cultivate kindness and compassion toward all sentient beings. I give you this ring as a symbol of my vows and commitment to you with body, speech and mind. In this life, in every situation, in wealth or poverty, in health or sickness, in happiness or difficulty.

My Practice is Following the Breath in My Body

One of the ways to start sanzen (private interview with the teacher) is to state what your zazen practice is. There are several techniques one can employ during zazen. Your teacher will often suggest a particular technique based on what she knows about you and the state of your Zen practice. Some of the most common zazen methods are: opening awareness to sound, performing body scans, doing metta (loving-kindness), and following the breath in the body. My practice is the latter-most technique: I follow my breath in my body.

When I sit down to meditate, I first work to find a comfortable position. Usually I sit on a zafu (round cushion) in Burmese style: legs crossed in front of me, but both flat on the floor. At times I will also sit in half-lotus position, but I find that harder to do for longer periods of time. I check that my posture is upright, but not stiff. I make sure I can breathe freely, that my stomach is unencumbered and can move easily as my diaphragm expands and contracts with each breath. Then start to breath deeply and deliberately. I try to maintain my attention with my breath as it moves through my body. I notice how my ribs expand as I breathe in, starting with the top most ribs and extending towards the bottom-most ones. I notice how my stomach expands and moves outward. I notice how my arms move outward ever so slightly. And then I do the same in reverse as I follow the breath as it leaves my body. I note, without judgment, any tight spots in the path of my breath. Sometimes I find that my breath is shallow and difficult as if I simply can’t get oxygen to the bottom of my lungs. Sometimes my chest grows heavy and starts to burn. Other times I feel like the air itself: light, almost as if I could float right off the the zafu.

While I’m doing this I try to think of nothing else but the sensations of the present. If I notice my mind wander, I try to simply notice this wandering and once again return my attention back to the sensations of breath in my body. I do this over and over again and without judgment. Okay, sometimes I have judgment about how well or poorly I’m doing zazen. But then I notice this too and return my focus to my breath.

My ability to concentrate in this manner varies. At times my mind wanders incessantly and I will be lucky if I am able to count three breaths before I start revising my todo lists, having practice conversations in my head, or working out a programming problem. Or sometimes I realize the monkey-mind has been running wild for who-knows-how-many minutes and I’ve not even been aware of it. But every now and then I will have several moments of sustained concentration, of simply being present to my life.

It sounds so easy, yet anyone who has tried it knows how truly difficult it is to just sit with yourself and breathe. It sounds so simple, and yet the depths of this technique I feel I’m only beginning to experience.

Inside of Grief is Great Love

During a recent discussion with my Zen cohort, someone mentioned that inside of grief is great love. I had never thought about grief in this way before. I had always thought of it in strictly negative terms and not as originating from positive emotion.

I’ve worked a lot with grief. There are ways in which I grieve the childhood that I wasn’t allowed to have. There are ways in which I grieve the relationship with my father that I once had (or thought I had) but no longer do. It’s this loss that I’ve been thinking about a lot of late.

The reason I’ve been thinking a lot about my father is because this week I’m receiving the Five Grace Precepts from my teachers. There’s a part during the ceremony where you are supposed to honor your parents by bowing to them. If your parents are in attendance, you bow in front of them. If your parents are not present, you turn and bow in their direction. The idea behind this is not to demonstrate some kind of subservience to your parents, but to honor their contribution to your life. After all, regardless of how you choose to judge this contribution, your parents enabled you to have life in the first place. My mother will be in attendance, so I will be able to bow to her. However, my father, who is still living, will not be in attendance. I have struggled with whether or not to bow in his direction.

My father has been estranged from our family for some time now. This estrangement, in a way, is a good thing. My father is not a healthy person. He was abusive to both my mother and my siblings throughout my childhood. In my early twenties he went to prison after a felony conviction. The last time I saw him was during his arraignment hearing (it’s a strange thing to see your father in shackles and an orange jumper). He’s since been released and I’ve thought about contacting him several times. I miss having a dad. I’ve missed having a dad since I was 13 when I realized my father was mentally unwell and unable to carry on normal, healthy relationships. From what little information I have about how my father is doing today, there’s little to indicate that anything has really changed about his disposition or ability to have healthy interactions with people. So I choose to remain disconnected from him.

Nevertheless, he’s still my father. For better or worse, I would not be the person that I am today without his contribution to my life. It’s true that I’ve endured a lot of heartache and have hard to work very diligently to heal the damage that he directly contributed to during my childhood. I do not absolve him of responsibility for these actions. But I do forgive him. My father is a deeply damaged individual. He did the things to me, my siblings and mother that he did because of pain and suffering that was inflicted upon him by his own caretakers. For whatever reason, he didn’t have the wherewithal to stop the cycle of abuse with himself, so he perpetuated this abuse upon his own children and wife. This is sad, unfortunate and certainly inexcusable. But it is human. What I wish for my father is to find some relief for his suffering, in whatever way that is possible. For him, it may only come with death.

So I have decided that I will bow to my father during this week’s ceremony. I will honor his contribution to my life.

In my heart, I think I knew from the beginning that I would choose to bow to my father. What, then, was the source of aversion and consternation I felt around this decision? I think it was that bowing to my absent father would acknowledge his absence and acknowledge how deeply I feel and grieve this absence. When I was younger, I thought that my sense of loss and grief would simply go away with time. But it hasn’t. In some ways it grows more acute. As I approach the time of starting my own family, I am saddened that my children will not get to know their grandfather. They won’t get to work in the print shop that I worked at as a child, they won’t get to work on projects with him. With each home improvement project, I have the urge to call my father up and ask for advice. Sometimes I just want to tell him about my latest accomplishment and I can’t. And it hurts.

So when I heard that inside of grief is great love, I immediately thought of my father. I am able to have grief for my father because I have a great love for him. And that’s okay. I have struggled with this notion over time. Love was not a word that was used in our family while I was growing up. I’m not sure that my father in capable of actually loving anybody. I think I internalized this ambivalence. But what I’ve come to realize is that it’s natural for children to love their parents. It’s what children do. It’s okay that I love my father even though he’s not part of my life and probably never will be again. It’s okay to love a parent who is deeply flawed and has done terrible things. Honoring that love doesn’t diminish any of the struggles that I endured as a child. In fact, I think it honors them.

And so I no longer look at my grief as this terrible burden. Rather, it’s the counter part to love. The ante we pay to experience love.

Precept 5: I Vow Not to Misuse Drugs or Alcohol, But to Keep the Mind Clear

In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the sixth post in series of six about the Five Grave Precepts. You might want to read the introductory post if you haven’t already.

Buddhists tend to have great disagreement about this precept. Some view it as rigid prohibition against consuming drugs and alcohol. Some view it not as a prohibition against a particular substance, but rather a proscription of clouding the mind with any intoxicant.

I am in the latter camp. Considering one’s intake of drugs and alcohol are very important in regards to this precept. Lots of people use alcohol and drugs (both illicit and prescribed) to muddle their minds and their experience of the present moment. Many use drugs for the specific purpose of turning away from their present suffering. And, of course, many are incapable of engaging alcohol or drugs without abusing them. For these people, I think interpreting this precept as a prohibition makes sense.

But many things can be used to cloud the mind, not just drugs: sex, eating, shopping, exercise, video games, gambling etc. Pretty much any activity can be utilized to distract the mind away from the truth of now.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable viewing this precept as an outright prohibition against drugs because of our culture’s views about drugs. We have a history of biased, irrational thinking about drugs and have allowed special interests to dictate policy regarding the legality of substances that humans have been using in positive contexts (for healing and spiritual growth) for thousands of years. I don’t think it makes sense to discount these substances simply because our culture has labeled them as illegal. Marijuana is a good example. For many, it offers better pain management than opiates and without the major side effects of those powerful narcotics. I think it is possible to use drugs (and, to a lesser extent alcohol) responsibly and without clouding the mind.

Because intoxicants are not limited to drugs and alcohol, and because normal activities like sex and eating can be used as intoxicants, I think this precept is much more about mindfulness is our substance/activity use. It’s about about being mindful regarding my intentions and of how a particular substance or activity affects my mind-body state mind-body. Is what I’m doing clouding my mind? Is it taking me away from the present moment? Am I engaging in this activity to escape? Am I avoiding unpleasant emotion?

Sometimes we can’t avoid clouding the mind. If we need a surgery, we are likely to be given strong narcotics that will change our state of mind. When we are sick, we are often clouded in our thinking. It’s in these cases where examining intention becomes important.

One would hope that our bodies get sick as part of the natural course of events and not because we have made ourselves sick. We hope that we take narcotics in order to enable our bodies to endure a procedure and heal. Then again, we know that this is not the case for all people. The death of Michael Jackson comes to mind here.

For the most part, I’ve been very cautious and metered in my use of drugs and alcohol. But looking back, there have been times where I have abused both substances. Back when I was going to Burning Man every year, and still very into taking substances to enhance my experience there, I recall someone saying to me that they didn’t need to takes drugs anymore, that they could get to these higher states of mind all on their own. At the time, I thought that notion very silly. That person was just old and boring (how embarrassing it is to think about this).

But now I realize what the person was saying is true. The closeness that I wanted to feel, the dropping of barriers, the union with something bigger than myself. Those are all things that I’m learning how to find on my own, without the aid of a drug. It’s pretty powerful to recognize that I can do this all on my own, and do it with a clear mind and a clear heart.

Precept 4: I Vow Not to Lie, But to Speak the Truth

In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the fifth post in series of six about the Five Grave Precepts. You might want to read the introductory post if you haven’t already.

“I will honor honesty and truth, I will not deceive.”

What is a lie? It occurs to me that there are myriad ways a person can lie. There are outright falsehoods that are clearly and factually wrong. There are “white” lies: Santa Claus, telling a person they look fine when they actually don’t, etc. There are exaggerations. There are lies of omission: under-reporting income on your taxes, leaving bad employment experiences off of job applications, etc. One can lie to others and to himself. Willful ignorance can be a form of lying to oneself. In a way, all the stories we have about ourselves are lies because they take us away from the direct experience, the direct truth of our lives.

I’ve always considered myself an honest and truthful person. But in thinking about all the ways that there are to lie, I realize that I do lie, and more often than I’d like to admit.

In some cases this takes the form of exaggeration. My father was a great exaggerator. No matter what our accomplishments were growing up, he would inflate them when relating them to friends and family. It drove me nuts. Nevertheless, at some point in my early twenties, I realized that I had internalized this bad habit. When relating things that would happen to me, I’d automatically hyperbolize the facts. 15 widgets became 100 and so on. At first this seemed perfectly natural and okay to me. It was good storytelling, I thought. I was just making the story interesting. But now I realize that undermining the truth, even in these little ways can be damaging. And, if I’m willing to lie about seemingly inconsequential things, what else am I willing to lie about?

Another way I found myself lying is when I started freelancing full-time. At first I really struggled in my communication with clients and in planning and making deadlines. Mostly this was driven by inexperience rather than incompetence or malice. But the result is that I would promise things that I couldn’t deliver and I would commit lies of omission by not communicating when I was running late on a project and by not asking for help. It took me really getting in over my head on a particular project to realize that being completely honest was the better route to take.

Now, if I don’t know how to do something, I say so. If I mess up on something, I immediately bring attention to it. If I’m running behind, I communicate that fact. As difficult as it can be to be honest, I’ve found that it’s much more difficult to endure the consequences when the truth arises, as it inevitably does.

Often, lying is rooted in fear. I exaggerate when I think that I will not be interesting enough on my own. I lie when I fear that some harm will come to me, be it loss of income, physical or emotional pain, etc. So one way that I work with this precept to examine what I’m feeling when I have the urge to lie. Most of the time I find that I want to avoid feeling something. I don’t want to be vulnerable or embarrassed, or I don’t want to experience loss. Once I’ve identified where the desire to lie originated, then I can make the choice to act truthfully (rather than simply react to this desire).

One of the reasons lying is so damaging an act is that it serves to destroy intimacy. I touched upon this a bit when writing about the third precept. There I mentioned that lies act as barriers. When we lie, the object of our lie becomes further separated from us. They become an ‘other.’

This aspect of the precept comes up for me when I am dealing with people that irritate me. I’ve noticed a certain habit I have wherein when I find someone abrasive, irritating, or simply have a difficult time connecting with then, I come to all sorts of judgements about what that person is like as a whole and how it’s okay for me not to like him/her and engage that person in friendships. At some point during the last year or two, probably as a direct result of my practice, I decided that instead of making up a story about these irritating people, I would engage them wholeheartedly. If and when I felt irritation, I’d simply note it and continue on rather than making up a story about it.

I’ve found that this is an amazing way to work with people. It allows me to connect with more people in a more genuine way.

I do think that there exist circumstances where lying can be appropriate. For example, when one participates in our judicial system I think that lies of omission can be acceptable. I do not mean lying under oath. I mean that one should follow the advice of their legal counsel and not reveal things that could be potentially damaging. Our justice system is relies on this structured revealing of information in order to provide the most amount of benefit to society as a whole.

Precept 3: I Vow Not to Misuse Sexual energy, But to be Honest and Respectful in Mind and Action

In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the fourth post in series of six about the Five Grave Precepts. You might want to read the introductory post if you haven’t already.

“I  will be conscious and loving in my relationships, I will not give way to lust.”

This is a difficult precept for me to write about. I imagine it is difficult for a lot of people. Our society consistency sends mixed messages about our sexuality and we internalize these mixed messages from a very early age. For those who have been subject to sexual abuse, the topic is fraught with an additional layer of complex emotion.

What I learned early on from my family of origin was that sexuality was not safe. Women who were sexual or sexy were vulnerable. I learned to hide my sexuality as much as possible. To this day I’m still uncomfortable being the object of someone’s desire (even that of my long time partner).

So while my upbringing makes this precept difficult to talk about, it also underscores the importance of upholding it. I’ve really had to dig deep to figure out what constitutes misusing sexual energy and what constitutes being honest and respectful in mind and body.

There’s no doubt that sexual energy is an integral part of life. In Zen writings it’s referred to as a ‘red thread’ running through all of us. Sex enables the continuation of our species and it can be an important aspect to living a full and integrated life. The key, I think, to this precept and to using sexual energy well is to respect both intimacy and bodily integrity.

Intimacy in this context means closeness. Closeness to your partner, to yourself, to the present moment. To your direct experience of the present moment. Sexuality should not be engaged at the expense of this intimacy. If I engage my sexuality in order to remove myself from the experience of the present moment, my partner or myself, then I am violating this precept.

I think honesty is implicit to maintaining intimacy. You can’t have intimacy if you’re not being honest. Untruths are a barrier. This means that engaging in sexual energy for ulterior motives is a violation of this precept. If I use my sexual energy in order to elicit favors or actions from someone, I am engaging in a deception about my motives and desires and therefore not upholding intimacy.

Taking this idea a bit further means that one should also be fully aware of their own state of mind and body when engaging sexual energy. When we aren’t clear of our own intentions, we can’t possibly be honest about them (to ourselves or to others).

The second aspect of this precept is the idea of upholding bodily integrity. Bodily integrity means that an individual has the right to determine what happens to his/her body. In terms of this precept, it means that sexuality should not be imposed upon someone in a way other than of the person’s choosing. This includes obvious cases like rape and sexual assault. It also includes less obvious actions like engaging in sexually charged speech and the use of sexually suggestive images in inappropriate settings.

It’s in talking about bodily integrity that I start to view this precept as relating to our treatment of animals. The abuse of animal sexuality is intrinsic to the meat and dairy industry. So for me, participating in these industries by consuming meat and dairy is a violation of the third precept as well as the first.

Outright denial of a person’s sexuality can also be a misuse of sexual energy. When we reject sexuality we can do as much damage to intimacy and bodily integrity as does giving way to lust. This doesn’t mean that we need to fulfill every sexual request that is put forth to us. But it does mean that we should honor the person who made the request and the vulnerability required to do so.

Precept 2: I Vow Not to Steal, But to Respect the Things of Others

In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the third post in series of six about the Five Grave Precepts. You might want to read the introductory post if you haven’t already.

“I will respect the property of others, I will not steal.”

Upholding this precept means that I do not take the things of others without their permission. I take only what is given freely. Sounds simple, right? In your driveway is a really nice car, one that I wouldn’t mind having, but I don’t drive off in it because it doesn’t belong to me.

The above is a straightforward example. But some are not so straightforward. There are many ways in which we are able to steal from one another and stealing isn’t limited to physical things. Through unskillful actions, we can take people’s time, their emotional energy, their sense of well-being, their independence. There are a few ways in which I work with this aspect of the second precept. The first is that I try to be very conscious of people’s time. I work towards being prompt for meetings and events, otherwise I call when possible and let the person know when I expect to arrive. While conversing, I practice being concise and listening whole-heartedly rather than simply wait my turn to speak. In my relationships, platonic and romantic, I work towards being inter-dependent rather than co-dependent. My goal is to, on average, put more into the relationship that I take out.

For be this precept is also very much about living simply and frugally. This means I have a practice of taking, purchasing or receiving only what I need. For example, I no longer acquire items simply because they are free or available at a significant discount. When I want to acquire something, I examine my motivations. I ask myself, “What need is this thing going to fulfill? Can something I already possess meet this need? Is this the most appropriate time to make this purchase, or would later be better? Am I spending money that I don’t have on this item?” I think it’s important to avoid debt whenever possible (though there are certain cases where debt makes sense, like buying a house). Acquiring debt is, in a way, stealing from your future self.

In some ways, I am very skillful at this practice of taking only what I need. In some ways, I still have a long way to go. I like gadgets and computers so it’s difficult for me to resist buying these things as I often do when not totally necessary.

Like the other precepts, we violate this precept all the time and partially out of necessity. I can’t exist without stealing resources from the Earth. I need air to breath, water to drink and food to eat. But I can minimize what we do take from the Earth by recycling, ride a bicycle whenever possible, being mindful of energy usage, etc. I also work to reduce what I steal from other non-human sentient beings (e.g. not taking an animal’s flesh or milk for food).

Precept 1: I Vow Not to Kill, But to Cherish All Life

In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the second post in series of six about the Five Grave Precepts. You might want to read the introductory post if you haven’t already.

“I will be mindful and reverential with all life, I will not be violent nor will I kill.”

All life is sacred, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. Taking any life is a violation of this precept. Yet, no creature can survive without taking life. We step on unnoticed insects while we walk, or we inadvertently kill earth worms while we’re tilling our soil. We kill a squirrel with our car because we are unable to stop safely in time. A gopher is killed by a tractor as vegetable crops are worked. Sometimes we euthanize a pet because we don’t have the resources to provide for its care, or we make the tough call that further treatment would not contribute to quality of life.

Recognizing that I can’t possibly uphold this precept perfectly, I instead do my best to affirm life and reduce suffering to the greatest extent possible. I ask myself, “Will what I’m about to do/say affirm life? Or will it increase suffering?” When possible, I refrain from making judgments about what suffering is okay and what suffering is not okay. I’m not sure how quantify suffering in order to make these comparisons.

One way of affirming life and reducing suffering is to refrain from the consumption of animal products for food. This includes meat, dairy, honey and other items that use animal products in their production. I do not require these substances in my diet in order to be healthy, so I choose to forgo the loss of life and suffering that is inherent to using animals as commodities. This also includes refraining from using any products that are the result of animal exploitation, whenever possible. (Read more about my veganism.)

An extension of this is that I do my best to live in harmony with the creatures around me. I try to be mindful that the space I occupy is shared with other creatures and that I am not specifically entitled to that space. Rather than kill the spider that’s taken up residence in my tomato plants, I carefully move him or simply work around him. This has actually been a particularly difficult aspect of the first precept for me. I’m terrified of spiders. But I haven’t intentionally killed one since I started working with the precepts nearly a year and a half ago. Instead, I acknowledge and honor the deep fear that I feel and make a mindful decision to carefully escort the spider out of the house anyway (or from wherever it needs to be moved). In some cases I let the spider stay where it is and try to appreciate what it contributes to the environment (e.g. eats pests).

Upholding this precept also means that I refrain from violent thoughts. It’s a violation of the first precept just to think, “oh, I’m going to kill him,” or “oh, I’d like to wring that person’s neck” even if those thoughts don’t directly precipitate violent action. For me, violent thoughts typically originate from anger or fear. Rather than allowing this anger or fear to give rise to violent thought or action, I work towards finding and understand its source. When working with the first precept in this regard, I always think of the Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I must not fear
To see its path.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass
Over me and through me.
And when it has gone past
I will turn the inner eye
Where the fear has gone
There will be nothing.
Only I will remain….

Refraining from violence also means that I avoid violent, harmful speech. I do my best to exercise Right Speech when communicating with others. This includes avoiding criticism, complaining and gossip. I try to make my speech compassionate and kind. When speaking with people about difficult topics, I attempt to focus more on what we have in common than on what separates us.

Writing About the Precepts

In about a week and a half, I’ll receive the Five Precepts from my teachers (I wrote about asking to take the precepts in an earlier post). The precepts are given as part of a formal ceremony in front of the whole sangha and are an essential part of Buddhist practice, for lay followers and monastics alike. Those who take (or receive) the Five Precepts make the following commitments:

I vow not to kill, but to cherish all life.
I vow not to steal, but to respect the things of others.
I vow not to misuse sexual energy, but to be honest and respectful in mind and action.
I vow not to lie, but to speak the truth.
I vow not to misuse drugs or alcohol, but to keep the mind clear.

The precepts are not considered as commandments or imperatives. Rather, they are guidelines. Buddhists take the precepts voluntarily as a way of strengthening our spiritual practice. These precepts become the heart, the underlying framework on which our practice is based. The precepts are not ends; they are means. We cannot possibly uphold the precepts perfectly. What we can do is use the precepts to guide our actions and decisions in order to reduce suffering as much as possible.

In preparing to take the five precepts, we are asked to reflect upon what each of the them means. My thoughts are collected in the next handful of blog posts.