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.