Saturday, October 29, 2011

Traveling Well

"It is better to travel well than to arrive." 
(attributed to The Buddha)

I've been thinking a lot about journeys lately, having just returned from a very transformative one earlier this month.  But I've also been thinking of the other journeys that we find ourselves traveling throughout the course of our lives, the ones that don't necessarily require cars, trains, or planes. The journey of our soul/spirit.  The journey that we take step-by-step, breath-by-breath, moment-to-moment.

John and I have delightful neighbors, a 90 year old couple named Mr. and Mrs. C.  Last Tuesday, Mrs. C. fell while getting up after a nap and she broke her hip.  She was fine in all respects except for the pain in her hip.  Before the EMT's wheeled her out of her house, she calmly reminded her son to "please make sure you finish the stew", and off she went.  The next day, as doctors were preparing her for surgery to repair the bones, she passed away.  Although Mrs. C. was 90 years old and had led a very long life, the news still came as a shock.  It was so unexpected and sad.

Mrs. C. and her husband had been married for 70 years (yep-70!).  They have five grown children and many grand and great-grandchildren.  Mr. C. is a World War II veteran and a life-long military man.  They've had many, many years of exciting travels, and experiences.  One of the most poignant aspects of this story is how well regarded Mrs. C. was by the many people who knew her.  At her funeral services the words sweet, loving, loyal, calm, and caring, kept coming up again and again by those who stood up to speak about her.  She had a very long and fruitful journey in this life, and by all accounts she traveled well.  She left a lasting legacy of calm abiding to her family and friends.

We get on our mat or meditation cushion so that we can open our eyes, hearts and minds to all of the conditions of happiness available to us in any given moment.  What we begin to awaken to is that our journey through life is what we make it.  We can choose to see the beauty of the scenery around us, or we can create a desolate vision of what's around us.  Ultimately the question is: When the journey ends, will you be able to say that you traveled well? 

Our dedicated practice teaches us how to travel well.  The twists, turns, and straight highways, back roads and trails of our life teach us that no matter what lies in our path, we have the capacity to find and deeply touch peace.  The journey is not always easy, in fact it is sure to be arduous at times, but peace is available with each step, breath and moment.

Take the time to enrich your travels.  

Until next time...

Walking Meditation
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Take my hand.
We will walk.
We will only walk.
We will enjoy our walk
without thinking of arriving anywhere.
Walk peacefully.
Walk happily.
Our walk is a peace walk.
Our walk is a happiness walk.

Then we learn 
that there is no peace walk;
that peace is the walk;
that there is no happiness walk;
that happiness is the walk.
We walk for ourselves.
We walk for everyone
always hand in hand.

Walk and touch peace every moment.
Walk and ouch happiness every moment.
Each step brings a fresh breeze.
Each step makes a flower bloom under our feet.
Kiss the earth with your feet.
Print on Earth your love and happiness.

Earth will be safe
when we feel in us enough safety.

Friday, October 21, 2011

What's Not Wrong?

"We should learn to ask, "What's not wrong?" and be in touch with that.  There are many elements in the world and within our bodies, feelings, perceptions, and consciousness that are wholesome, refreshing, and healing.  If we block ourselves, if we stay in the prison of our sorrow, we will not be in touch with these healing elements."
-Thich Nhat Hanh-Peace Is Every Step

Last Saturday I led a "Working With The Bones" workshop which was designed to illustrate how there are eight major joints of the body (wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, lumbar spine, pelvis/femur, knees, ankles), as well as muscle tension that can effect our range of motion.  We had tons of fun finding out how different each body in the room was.  

One of the points I stressed was that although we may encounter limited range of motion in some poses, that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with us.  We live in a strange culture that pushes an image of perfection at us and looking at the glossy pages of Yoga Journal magazine - replete with airbrushed fitness models - one might get a bit discouraged at what their body can't do in comparison to the "yogi" on the cover.

Sadly, we often get so conditioned to focus on what's "wrong" with us or our lives, all of the things that are missing, that we forget to note all of the many wonderful things that are present.  If you took a moment to write down the things that you think are "wrong" or missing from your life (not enough money, can't get into side crow pose no matter how hard I try, not tall enough, etc), but also jotted down the things that are NOT wrong (healthy body, strong legs, roof over my head, steady work, food!), I guarantee you that the list of what's NOT wrong will be much, much longer than what is wrong.

In terms of our yoga practice, once we know how to align our bodies and establish solid postures, we then begin to focus on the deeper and much more fulfilling practice, which is to open our hearts to compassion, tenderness, presence and understanding.  We stop focusing on "good" or "bad", "right" or "wrong" and become open to the joy available in what "is".  We don't change the world by perfecting a binding side angle pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana).  The world doesn't necessarily benefit from our ability or inability to rock a handstand in the middle of the room.  We change the world by looking deeply at ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses with compassion, and by using our awareness to transform our suffering.  We change the world by opening the door of our heart and living from a place of peaceful abiding.  Sure, we can help ourselves to do this through a devoted asana practice, but ultimately our practice deepens by recognizing all of the things the aren't wrong with ourselves, our lives, and our world.

Try it today.  Make a list of the things in your life that are "wrong" (not enough money, can't do lotus position, cranky co-worker, etc).  On another sheet of paper, take some time to think of all the things that aren't wrong (the presence of food on the table, clothing on your back, can do triangle, have a secure job, etc).  Take a look at the two lists side by side… I guarantee that the list of things that aren't wrong is much, much longer than all of the things that are.

Until next time…

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Lessons From A Kiwi

“When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love.” -Thich Nhat Hanh 

Look at this beautiful kiwi fruit.  Suppose you've never eaten a kiwi and you asked me to describe it to you. I could explain how it's small, oval shaped, and fits in the palm of my hand, or how its skin is slightly fuzzy, yet slightly rough.  I could describe the bright green flesh that is speckled with tiny black seeds and how it has an almost creamy texture.  Or how it tastes slightly like strawberries, banana and melons combined.  I could slice one open and show you its beautiful green starburst insides, but until you actually hold one in your hand, or taste its juicy sweetness, or see its vivid color, you can never truly know what it's like to experience a kiwi.  You can never really know the truth of eating a kiwi, right?

In order to understand the ultimate truth of any situation, you have to stop being an observer and become a participant.  In order for true understanding to be possible, you have to remove the barrier between observer and the object being observed.  You can read about, or listen to or watch something be explained, but in order to fully understand the truth about the object of your attention, you must experience it.  Explanations are just notions and concepts, and notions and concepts can never be the reality. Experience is how we cultivate insight - deep intuitive understanding.

Until I had experienced true mindfulness at Thay's retreat, I only had notions and concepts about it.  I studied a lot about it, I understood it on an intellectual level, but it wasn't until I experienced it first hand for an extended period of time that the truth of it awakened in me.

Our teachers (yoga and meditation, or otherwise) can describe for us the experience of a posture, breathing techniques, or what meditation is or is not, but ultimately it is up to each practitioner to take the notions and concepts that they are provided with and find their own experience and insight. 

When we begin class with the bell of mindfulness, it's an invitation for us to turn our full attention to the practice of finding the truth of each moment.  The bell is a powerful reminder to let go of notions and concepts and absorb the experience of the truth of being, without adding anything extra.  We practice "tasting" each posture and noticing the texture of our thoughts, the richness of our breath and the weight of our awareness.

Until next time…

The Light of Understanding

"Understanding means throwing away your knowledge.” Experience is your best teacher.
-Thich Nhat Hanh

Life since the retreat has been really interesting.  In many ways I feel as if I've been re-born, if that makes sense. I've been re-learning how to walk, speak, eat, and move through the world in this new, mindful way.  In an email to my dharma teacher last week, I said that I feel as if a huge light switch has been turned on in me and I really don't want the lights to go out again. Practice, practice, practice.

Over the past week or so, when things have gotten busy, I've found myself sort of wishing that living in the world wasn't as challenging as it often seems to be.  But then I remember to come back to the simplicity of practicing mindfulness and I realize that it's not the world that is making things difficult, it's me.  

It's amazing how deeply ingrained our habits become, how easy it is to distract ourselves when something challenging arises, or to blame the world (or other people) for our suffering or difficulties when all along we have the ability to cultivate deeper understanding in ourselves and live our lives with more freedom and peace.  I've read this quote attributed to the Buddha a million times but after actually experiencing this on a deep level at the retreat, I realize just how true it is: "Peace comes from within, do not seek it without".  We have the capacity at all times to drop all of our perceptions and illusions and really just experience the peace available to us.  But the trick is, we have to get out of our own way first.

Thay says: When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don't blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with the world or our friends or family, we blame the world or the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change. 

In this practice we're often encouraged to come back to "beginner's mind".  We cultivate love and understanding by throwing away our knowledge of how things should be, and actually experiencing things as they are. And so I watch the habits of distraction arise.  I watch the urge to blame, project, persuade, and how they try to assert themselves into my newly illuminated world.  I come back to how much more liberating it feels to actually experience the moment in all of its beauty, challenge and complexity, knowing that the only way out of my suffering is to compassionately wade through it.  So I simply practice learning how to walk again - solidly, like a free person, without these ghosts chasing after me.  I simply practice learning how to sit with ease of mind and spirit.  I re-learn over and over again how to breathe, smile, and eat with mindfulness.  In this way, the lights will stay on and never get switched back off again.

Until next time...let the sunshine in :)



Friday, October 14, 2011


Cotton field on one of the roads leading to the monastery.

Welcome to Batesville, MS!

We have indeed arrived :)

Sign for Magnolia Village

This sign sits at the bottom of the dirt road that leads up to the monastery.  That's Thay's calligraphy!

Thay's calligraphy outside of the dining hall.  A gentle reminder to eat mindfully.

The Five Contemplations:

  1. This food is the gift of the whole universe: the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard, loving work.
  2. May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.
  3. May we recognize and transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed, and learn to eat with moderation.
  4. May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet, and reverse the process of global warming.
  5. We accept this food so that we may nurture our sister- hood and brotherhood, strengthen our community, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings.

The lotus pond and bridge.

Zen rocks outside of the nun's residence.

Home sweet home.

Our home for the week.

The "Look Deeply" family.  Our work and dharma family became very close in a short period of time.  They are all dear souls.

Thay makes his way to the morning Walking Meditation.

It was so peaceful to walk with him.

Getting ready to walk with Thay.

Thay and the children.

About 20 children walked in front of the line with Thay and never made a peep.  They seemed to pick up on his peaceful abiding.

Thay and one of the brothers walking mindfully to the morning dharma talk.

Reminders everywhere :)

Thay's notes.

The alter in the meditation tent.  Notice the lack of deities.

The alter says: "I have arrived.  I am home."

The mindfulness bell.

The meditation tent.

Thay jots down notes as he lectures.

View from our tent.  That's the nun's residence in the background.

Another view from our tent.

Our "home" started to get a little wonky by the end of the week :)

Late afternoon sun on the grape arbor.


One of the out buildings...a storage shed, I think.

This is where the nuns live.  Their rooms are downstairs and they have a meditation space on the second floor.

Sun on the path outside the nun's residence.

Late afternoon sun.

Near the nun's residence, on the way to our tent.

Behind the dining hall. The tent to the right is where we washed our dishes.

The back of the dining hall (to the right) and the dish washing tent (to the left). 

One of the monastics.

Setting up the dish washing stations.

Sunny slope behind the dining hall.  A great place to get warm in the afternoon.

Behind the dining hall.  The meditation tent is to the left and the bathhouse straight ahead and to the right.

Meditation tent.

Men's camp ground.

Back of the Buddha Hall.

Side of the Buddha Hall.  This was where all of our announcements or messages were posted.  There were always many smiling monks or nuns peacefully gathered there.

The beautiful sister Chan Khong.

Sister Chan Khong signing her book.

No mud, no lotus.

One of the many lovely aspects of the retreat was, if you had a question about your practice, or had something weighing on you, one of Thay's monastics from Plum Village would happily set up a consultation with you and help you in any way they could.  The beautiful sister Huang Hau helped me in SO many ways.  

Walking with Thay.

Thay on a chilly morning, making his way to the meditation tent.

Watching Thay pass by.

Walking behind Thay.

Enjoying the present moment together.

Soaking up the exquisite sunshine on a cold morning.  Lyn, on the right was one of the first people we encountered at Magnolia.

Sitting in the sun with Thay.

One of the monks stopping to smell the flowers (and gather them too!).

Dear, sweet Thay.  This photo was taken by one of our work family members, John Cotterman. He has such a great eye.

Beloved teacher.