The gift of life

Every year, a monk who lived high in the mountains in an isolated retreat would come down to a nearby village and barter with the villagers for supplies to sustain him until his next visit.

Each year, he would bet the villagers that he could guess what any of them was holding in their hands.  The villager would wager some food and the monk would wager the gift of a blessing in case he couldn’t guess.  But he never did, and when he returned to this retreat, the villagers were left to wonder as to how he did it while thinking of new ways to catch him out so they could receive his blessing.

One year, a teenage boy came up with a cunning plan to gain the monks blessing.  He would hold a live bird in his hands and invite the monk to guess.  If the monk didn’t guess, he would receive his blessing, but if he did manage to guess, the teenage boy would ask “is it alive or dead though ?”  

If the monk guessed dead, then the boy would open his hands in front of the monk, the bird would fly away and the boy would receive his blessing.  If the monk guessed alive though, the boy would clasp the bird tightly, killing it and again, he would receive his blessing.

Pleased with his plan, the boy waited until the Autumn when the monk came to the village.  Patiently, he waited and then asked the monk “what have I got in my hands ?” when it was his turn.

The monk, looked at the boys hand and smiled “You have a bird in your hand” he said.  “BUT” shouted the boy, his trap set  “Is it alive or dead ?”  

The monk thought for a while, for he was a very wise man and understood immediately what the trap was.  In time, he smiled again at the boy and said “You have the gift of life in your hands, what you choose to do with it is up to you”.

Beaten, the boy opened his hands and the bird flew free.

Remember, Every single one of us has the gift of life within our own hands.

Letting go

While out doing the “girls that do lunch” thing, my friend Kate asked me what being mindful meant.  Pretty deep stuff (and awkward to answer with a mouthful of cheesecake) But in between my munchings, it made me wonder what it really means, “to be in the present moment” ?
It’s a great question !!! I wonder what your answer would be ?  For me, being in the moment means being mindfully aware of what is going on right here and now, in our experience, and this includes any thinking we do about the past or future. Much of the time our experience does not have this quality of awareness or mindfulness. A lot of the time we are like robots, automatically living out habitual patterns of self-pity, anger, wish fulfillment, fear, etc. These habitual tendencies take us over and run our lives for us – without our being able to stand back and decide whether this is what we actually want to be doing. It can be a real shock when we start to realize just how habitual and automatic our lives are, and when we realize how much runaway thinking leads to states of suffering.
When we’re in this robotic state, we’re not mindfully aware of what’s going on. We may know on some level that we’re angry but we probably don’t realize most of the time that we have an option not to be angry. We fantasize without any discernment of whether what we’re thinking about is making us happy or unhappy. And in fact, a lot of the time when we are letting our habits dominate us we are not making ourselves or others happy – often quite the opposite.
Being in the moment is just another way of saying that we are aware of what is going on in our experience, that we are not just being angry (or whatever) but are aware that we are angry and are aware that we can choose to be otherwise. Of course a lot of the time when we are not being in the moment, we are literally thinking about the past or present. We might be dwelling on the past – brooding about some past hurt. Or we may be fantasizing about a future in which we have won the lottery and are living out our lives in some imagined paradise, or daydreaming about being with the perfect partner.
Often these fantasized pasts and futures are not even real possibilities, but simply fantasies of how things might be or of how we would have liked them to have been. And as with all unmindful activity, we have no awareness that this fantasizing is pointless. All that it does is reinforce unhelpful emotional tendencies that can never truly enrich our lives.
Reflecting with mindfulness

There are, of course, ways of mindfully thinking about the past or future. Being in the moment does not mean that we are stuck in the moment. We can mindfully and creatively call to mind past events, or imagine what might happen in the future. We can think about the past and think about how we might have acted differently, or wonder why something happened the way it did. We can think about possible futures, and of how the actions that we commit now will make those futures more or less likely. When we are thinking about the past or future while being in the moment, we are conscious that we are reflecting and we’re not lost in thought. We don’t confuse fantasy with reality. We don’t stray from thinking about the past in order to construct imaginary pasts in which we said or did the right thing – or if we do so then it’s part of a conscious thought experiment to see what we might learn from the experience. We think about the future, but rather than it being idle daydreaming we’re thinking about the consequences of our actions or otherwise reflecting on where we want to go in life.
Sometimes daydreaming can be creative. It can be wonderful to relax the reins of consciousness and allow our creative unconscious mind the opportunity to express itself.

But it’s generally far more useful to have a part of our conscious mind standing by, observing, watching for any sign that the creative expression of the unconscious is turning gray – turning into the repetitive and reactive expression of old and unhelpful emotional patterns. The conscious mind can intervene at such moments with a light touch, a gentle redirection of our mental energies so that we stay in the present; aware, mindful, and creative.

 

Love and Light

Buddhist prayer for Healing

Buddhist prayerJust as the soft rains fill the streams,
pour into the rivers, and join together in the oceans,
So may the power of every moment of your goodness
flow forth to awaken and heal all beings.
Those here now, those gone before, those yet to come.
By the power of every moment of your goodness,
may your heart’s wishes be soon fulfilled
as completely shining as the bright full moon,
as magically as by a wish-fulfilling gem.
By the power of every moment of your goodness,
may all dangers be averted and all disease be gone.
May no obstacle come across your way.
May you enjoy fulfillment and long life.
For all in whose heart dwells respect,
who follow the wisdom and compassion, of the Way,
may your life prosper in the four blessings
of old age, beauty, happiness and strength

How to Meditate

meditation

With so many forms of introspection and mental awareness training going by the name of “meditation,”  it can often be difficult to understand which one is for you, or even understand the benefits of the practice.  So with that in mind, I thought I would share my own personal perspective on the technique and the benefits it brings me.

If you’re new to the idea of meditation and wanting to experience it, one of the most accessible techniques comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism called “Theravada” and is called “vipassana” in its native Pali (In English it translates as “insight”)  Although based in the Theravada and a lot of training courses will offer it in a Buddhist context, knowledge of Buddhist Dharma isn’t a pre-requisite, or even essential for the technique, making it ideal for beginners to join in without fear of embarrassment.

Vipassana promotes a quality of being which in Pail is known as “Sati”. (In English it translates to “Mindfulness”)  But what is it ?  Well, simply put, mindfulness is a state of open, nonjudgmental, and non discursive attention to the contents of consciousness. Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to modulate pain, mitigate anxiety and depression, improve cognitive function, and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self awareness.

The practice of mindfulness is extraordinarily simple to describe, but is in no sense easy to master.  Indeed, true mastery probably requires special talent and a lifetime of practice. Happily, however, the benefits of training in meditation arrive long before mastery ever does.

One of the earliest challenges every meditator will face is referred to as “monkey mind”.  That is distraction caused by the inability to focus.  This can be from external stimuli (which it is more easy to remove yourself from) but also internal ones too (which are harder)  How often have you paused for reflection only for something else to “pop into your head” and then dominate your thoughts and distract you ?  Most of us fall under the spell of “monkey mind” at some point or another in our early practice.  It can be a frustrating experience !!!! Meditation is a technique for breaking the hold this spell has over us. The technique allows us to awaken from unfocussed thinking and from the easy habit of hanging onto the pleasant (rejecting the unpleasant), so that we can enjoy a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.

My practice routine

  • I put some relaxation music on, nothing with a heavy beat, or words. Just something that can fill the background space.
  • I sit.  It’s important to be comfortable when you’re meditating , more so than being cross legged (lots of people think you have to be cross legged, but its more important to be comfortable – remember, we’re trying to remove internal distraction and nothing screams more loudly than “this hurts !!”  I personally sit cross legged, wrapped in my prayer shawl on a cushion.
  • I close my eyes and feel the points of contact between my bum and the cushion and the shawl wrapped around me. I then start to open my mind up to the sensation of sitting, the pressure of the floor, the warmth of the shawl, etc.
  • Gradually, I start to focus on my breathing, slower and deeper.  I pay more attention to the feeling it gives me, without trying to control it, just letting it come naturally and fill me.
    • I personally find as my focus on my breathing intensifies and takes hold, other perceptions and sensations continue to appear: sounds, feelings in the body, emotions, etc. Any time my mind wanders in these sensations, I pause and return to the sensation of breathing. The idea being that any moment I notice I have become lost in thought, I notice the thought itself as an object of my consciousness. Then return my attention to the breath—or to whatever sounds or sensations arise in the next moment.
  • When its time, I come out of that  moment (generally about 20 minutes or so, sometimes longer) and the day continues !

The above works for me and is the basis of the “vipassana” practice, I find it gives me a sense of peace, which has made me less emotional and affected by the ups and downs of the day.  According to my fitness band, I find that my heartbeat slows too, not as low as it gets when I’m sleeping, but slower than my usual 65 beats a minute during the day. I appreciate its not for everyone, even that reading something as simple as beyond frustrating, but it’s worth sticking with, even if the benefits of full mindfulness escape you, just taking 20 minutes out of your day to stop and reflect is a powerful benefit that you deserve, so stick with it and let me know how you get on !!!

Zen and the art of Work

Mountain

Have you ever stopped to think about the amount of time you spend at work ?  I’ll bet its quite a lot of your week.  Seems kindof a shame if you aren’t getting the most of it. But work doesn’t seem to be the place for Joy and generosity does it ? Do those words fit in with your companies image and expectation of you ? So how can you balance this and find your inner peace at work of all places ?

The practice of mindfulness can offer an answer, not only to help us stay in balance but also to ensure we are able to see our work in the context of creating a better world. But how can this impossibly simple art of bringing our full attention to the present moment and our breath possibly help ?

When we learn how to address our strong and often negative emotions and establish good relationships at work, our communication improves, stress is reduced, and our work becomes much more pleasant.  This benefits not just us, but also our work colleagues, loved ones, families, and society.  By taking care of the present, you are doing everything you can to assure a good future.

So how can mindfulness help at work ?  How can we integrate it into our work routine ?  Well, try these simple steps… And let me know how you get on !!!

  • Start the day with meditation.  10 minutes is enough, just sit, breathe. Nothing more. nothing less
  • Take the time to enjoy breakfast at home.  Think about what you are eating.  If you eat with your family, take the time talk to one another.
  • Don’t think of time as “my time” and “work time.” At the start of the day you were given the gift of 24 new hours,  time has no owner and all time can be your own time if you stay in the present moment.
  • Find a calm area at work to sit and breathe. Take regular breathing breaks to come back to your body and to bring your thoughts back to the now.
  • At lunch time, don’t eat lunch at your desk, change your environment and go for a walk.
  • If you feel anger or irritation, refrain from saying or doing anything straight away. Come back to your breathing and follow your in – and out-breath until you’ve calmed down.
  •  Share with work colleagues your appreciation of their positive qualities.
  • Take the time to relax and restore yourself before you go home, so you don’t bring negative energy or frustration back home with you.
  • At the end of the day, keep a journal of all the good things that happened in your day. Water your seeds of joy and gratitude regularly so they can grow

Well, that’s what I try to do – what about you ?

Mindful sleep

Sleeping.jpg

As someone who suffers with insomnia, all too often when my head hits the pillow, my brain doesn’t switch off and stop. I know sleep should come, but I just can’t switch off from thinking about the pressing and mundane things, reviewing the day’s events and things that need to be completed tomorrow.

In that moment before sleep should come,  I lose sight of the present moment and I get stuck in a maladaptive way of thinking. Slow, deep and relaxed breathing is forgotten. Once that happens, my muscles tense and then – my thoughts become dominated with “I’m not falling asleep…..!” My body seizes up, breathing and heart rate quicken, and falling sleep becomes more difficult.

As a practicing Buddhist, I’ve found that there are many benefits to the practices of mindfulness and meditation.  But recently, after a talk at out local Buddhist centre a few of us were talking about difficulties we were having sleeping. Our teacher overheard us and mentioned the practice of mindfulness has even been shown to benefit sleeping.  As an example he gave us an exercise to try that night, which I’ve repeated below

  • About an hour before you go to bed, dim the lights.  Start to wind down mentally by doing light relaxation activities. You’re not looking for anything too taxing to sink your teeth into.  Just something you can just “be” with.
  • Avoid looking at tv screens, computers, tablets, phones etc.  the light from them can keep you alert and awake.
  • about 15 minutes before you go to bed, begin a focussed mindfulness exercise.  Find a comfortable chair, dim the lights.  Imagine the outline of your body and slowly trace it through in your mind. Mentally sink into the chair, feel where the chair rests gently against your body, where it presses harder.  Work from your head down, focus on your neck. Down one side, to your feet and then back up the other side.  Take about 10 minutes for this exercise.  If your mind wonders, notice it and bring it back to the place where you noticed it had wandered.  Don’t judge yourself.  Your mind is always going to drift.  The point to the exercise is to bring it back to the moment.
  • Get ready for bed and lay down.  Now focus on your breath, slowly, gently, stay in that moment of the breath. In about 5-10 minutes you should notice that you’re tired and sleepy.  If you don’t – go back to the previous step and repeat the exercise.  This time though – don’t go back to bed until you’re sleepy !

I’ve tried it a few times (I like to try different methods, so I don’t lose the benefit of each practice by over using them) and it really works.  The trick is not to fall in the chair – that’s uncomfortable !!!

 

 

Living in the moment

How do you stay in the moment ?

It’s a deceptively simple question which many of us struggle to answer, let alone integrate into our daily lives.

If, as buddhists, we hope to be released from suffering, this practice should be a central part of our awareness. For me, this practice starts at 04:00 am at meditation, where I remind myself to “focus on the breath”. When I do this, I give myself a better chance of avoiding “monkey mind” and getting the most from this practice and the day ahead.

Fast forward to the working day and like you, I’m bombarded with thoughts of things that need to be worked on, which colleagues or myself need help on. These things contribute to a perpetual state of “Monkey Mind” where I am drawn away from the peace and freedom of the now. Then the more I think about them, the more of them I attract. So how do I return to the now ?

Remembering the words of my teacher, I look at my feet and say to myself to “stay where my feet are”.

That one thought grounds me to where I am and the moment I am in.

No matter what the situation I find myself in, when I sense frustration at how something is going, resentment or disappointment, even shame at my actions, I stop, breathe and look at my feet. I become conscious of this, forgive myself, make another choice and embrace the now. Slowly, I forgive myself and allows myself the freedom and to show up completely for others.

From there, a confidence returns to be able to let go of the past, not to worry about the things in the future. My consciousness shifts to the now.

On reflecting over the many moments where I have reminded myself to look at my feet, I’ve noticed a pattern to the things that make me need to and what I learnt from doing so. My top 5 are below

(1) “I don’t know” .

One of the most interesting courses I’ve ever attended was about the “Destruction of ignorance”. While at face value, the course title might seem strange, the point of the course was that it’s ok not to know, its even ok to let go of the things you think you know too. By thinking we know something we unconsciously assume, we don’t challenge the status quo or even ourselves. By admitting I don’t know, I make myself teachable to new lessons and possibilities and I become better for it.

(2) “Let it go”

Although my daughter (and probably your kids too) will tell you it’s a Disney Anthem, there is a freedom, wonder and mystery in the present. Look around, ask, seek, and discover that which is waiting to be discovered and expressed through you. Its fun too ! Each of us has a capacity, but in  order to be available, we have to clear out the stuff that we no longer need. It doesn’t mean to say its gone forever, you can always pick it up again……..

(3) “What if it all goes wrong”

This can often be a paralysing fear which takes courage to overcome. There are lots of ways of looking at this though. Usually, when I look at my feet, I realise that its already going wrong, so I’m often not losing anything by trying. Fears ok, as long as you don’t let it paralyse you. Being afraid to jump out of an crashing aeroplane won’t kill you. Letting that fear paralyse you from pulling the ripcord on your parachute however…..

(4) “Why’s this happening to me”

Whatever is showing up in your current experience is meant to be there or it wouldn’t be. This simple thought allows me to move from being a victim to being empowered to triumph. Often too, I realise that it’s not “just me”. Even though you’ll often hear people say they dont like Mondays, they tend to happen to everyone. How I react to it is my choice though. I am responsible and “response able” for my own happiness.

(5) “What I have defines who I am”

What clothes and shoes are cluttering your closet that you haven‘t worn in over a year? What junk is taking up space in your filing cabinets or kitchen drawers? Cleanse, clear, release, and in your emptiness you shall be filled with good. I was once privileged enough to meet the Dalai Lama and ask him a question at the Vajrasattva Ceremony in Nottingham.  I asked him “Can happiness exist in a state of no mind ?” his answer “yes”.  If its good enough for him, well, what more do I need to say ?