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Category Archives: Emotions

bell-outdoors

“May the sound of this bell reach suffering ones in the whole cosmos, sending healing, comfort and peace.”  These words from my meditation teacher, Anh Huong Nguyen (www.mpcf.com) last Saturday morning, brought tears of joy and relief to my soul.

I had just traveled half way around the world from a wonderful visit to family living in Malaysia.  I had suffered the night before from lack of sleep and justified anger directed at me from a loved one.  I ate cereal in the car on the ride to this beautiful annual ceremony to transmit the Five Mindfulness Trainings to a member of WMC and many others from MCPF, Stillwater and other sanghas on the east coast.  I had been filled with remorse for my mindless actions that had hurt and angered someone I love dearly.  My body was still adjusting to crossing 12 time zones and being greeted by bitter 16 degree weather.  My spirit needed the silence, the beautiful church with huge windows revealing gently falling snow, a fox trotting by in the woods, the warmth of dozens of beloved sisters and brothers surrounding me.  I took a deep breath, relaxed and let myself cry.

I often find in meditation that the first person who needs the healing sound of the bell is me.  My suffering is so small compared to that of families dying daily in Aleppo, women raped and beaten in many countries, children starved and abused, all people suffering from war, poverty, oppression and fear of their political leaders.

Yet this body is the one I feel most closely, can breathe in most easily, can feed, rest, comfort and nourish.  I hope it is true – as Thich Nhat Hanh and his niece Anh Huong teach me – that in taking care of myself, I am taking care of the whole cosmos.  All suffering beings are present in me and me in them.  We “inter-are.”  I am the child in Aleppo.  I am the woman in Nigeria bearing a child of rape.  I am the coal miner in West Virginia worried about feeding his children.  I am determined to take care of all of me, all of the suffering in the world in my breathing, in the sound of this bell going out to the whole cosmos.

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car snowed inThese last four days of being buried under two feet of snow has been a challenge for many of us. It is especially difficult if we don’t have a strong meditation practice, are not used to being alone and miss distractions and activities (work, shopping, driving, even phone calls, television and internet if power is lost).  At last my copy of the Washington Post arrived today!

This morning my husband read a passage from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Art of Communication before our sitting meditation (after journaling and Qi Gong, our usual morning routine). Thay said “The way in is the way out.” I breathed with this phrase, letting it sink into my consciousness, the truth of it connecting to my heart.

Even though my outer world has been still, covered in snow, preventing usual outward activities, we have been happy to have this little four-day retreat together. Fortunately we also have power, so we’ve checked on friends and family, FaceTimed with those half-way around the world, held an on-line meeting, faced some tasks that we might have shunned without this intense period of time alone at home.

But the most precious gift was extra time to meditate together. To touch our hearts, to feel fears of isolation, “cabin fever,” being ‘trapped’ should there be a medical emergency. Our logic tells us that we have great neighbors (our next door neighbor held a brunch for all the children who made her lawn into a giant snow slide), a four-wheel jeep across the street, many friends. But sometimes our hearts beat with irrational fear. We need time to calm our heart, clear our mind, find our breath and know that we are truly at home, here and now.

From the safety and joy of going inward, we find the strength and clarity to reach out to others, dig out our cars, wait patiently until it is safe to venture further and reach out to the rest of the world, with all its suffering and joy.

“The path home begins with your breath. If you know how to breathe, you can learn how to walk, how to sit, how to eat your meal, and how to work in mindfulness so that you can begin to know yourself. When you breathe in, you come back to yourself. When you breathe out, you release any tension. Once you can communicate with yourself, you’ll be able to communicate outwardly with more clarity. The way in is the way out.” (p. 17/18).

 

Butterfly Museum with my granddaughter-life, so beautiful, so fleeting it seems

Butterfly Museum with my granddaughter-life, so beautiful, so fleeting it seems.

My son, daughter in law and granddaughter are in the air for a two day trip half way around the world.  We might not see them again for a year, a very long time in a grandmother’s life.  I miss them terribly already, yet the joy of their two week visit is evidenced throughout our home.  Photos from two birthday parties, a christening yesterday in Baltimore of Pat’s grand niece and numerous adventures in museums and waterfront cafes with wonderful friends and family.  I shared with some friends at a meeting on Friday (another joyous celebration) that I’ve found joy nestled within the greatest sorrows.  In fact, joy and sorrow have become not separate, different entities in my life, but the same experience viewed with different attitude, viewpoint, perspective.

During one of his powerful talks, Thich Nhat Hanh (www.plumvillage.org) showed us a piece of paper and said, one side is joy and the other our suffering.  They are not different, separate entities or experiences.  They are the same.  Without our suffering, our challenges in life, how could we find the depth of acceptance, compassion and love that infuses our joy and happiness?  Without a deep inner happiness based on the oneness we have with others, with the whole Universe, how could we endure our suffering?

I might find some tears and longing in my heart today, a bit of fear for their safety and well-being, a desire to cling to them, hold them here close to us.  But it has always worked best with my son to “let him go,” allow him all the freedom to explore, work, learn and be the dedicated person he is in his work to alleviate poverty in Asia and other parts of the world.  I ask that my heart continue to grow with the love he inspires in me, to keep encompassing all people I meet, to treat them with the same respect and love I have for him, his beautiful wife and precious daughter.

I sing “Please Call me by my True Names”:

“My joy’s like spring so warm, it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain’s like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once.

So I can hear that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up

and the door of my heart will be left open.

The door of compassion.”

 

 

 

 

Storm comingOne day in a place of great beauty, a sudden storm arose, carrying visible, tangible darkness and suffering.

I watched, listened, breathed in the smell and feel of quickening wind and rain.

Storms are sometimes quick;  some gather slowly, remain longer.

But all of them seem to contain an ending, a quieting, a moment of light

Bursting through.   I wait, listen, watch and keep breathing in the smell and warmth of light

within the clouds.

Sunrise over sea

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“Unscheduled time” feels dangerous for some of us.  So we fill all our time, playing with our electronics, turning on the TV, skimming through Facebook.  Faced with a postponed meeting yesterday and four extra hours before me, I recognized the mind in me that fears empty space, that wants to fill it up with something, anything, preferably something pleasurable, distracting, that keeps me from feeling bad, alone, unsure, scared, unproductive.  Sometimes I feel “empty”-a useless, “don’t know what to do with myself” feeling- but know this feeling is not what the Buddha was aiming at when he spoke of emptiness.  I might fill this feeling with little house-keeping tasks, opening mail, responding to email, but not in a way that is fulfilling, real. We do have to deal with those tasks, but there is a difference between acting with mindful energy and doing things to fill a void. “Empty” is not a very positive word in our culture, not something we naturally aspire to have.

As I journaled about this question this morning, I pulled out a book that gave me new insight into “emptiness” – Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness.

He says that the Buddhist word for “emptiness” is the opposite of our interpretation as “void” or “nothingness” or “vacuum,” all negatives in English. In Tibetan “emptiness” is two words – tongpa-nyi – which he says means “inconceivable” or “unnamable” POSSIBILITY. His words gave me a whole new, very positive view of this word I see often as a goal of Buddhist meditation. It is a state in which “anything can arise, anything can happen.” It is a place of “unlimited potential for anything to appear, change or disappear.”

“Physicists describe the state from which all subatomic phenomena arise as vacuum state, the state of lowest energy in the subatomic universe. In the vacuum state, particles continually appear and disappear. So, although seemingly empty, this state is actually very active, full of the potential to produce anything whatsoever. In this sense, the vacuum shares certain qualities with the ‘empty quality of the mind.‘ Just as the vacuum is considered ‘empty,’ yet is the source from which all manner of particles appear, the mind is essentially ‘empty’ in that it defies absolute description. Yet out of this indefinable and incompletely knowable basis, all thoughts, emotions and sensations perpetually arise.” (p. 59-60)

Our resistance to becoming ‘empty’ might be a resistance to dissolving into nothingness, having no purpose, becoming the ‘hole in the doughnut,’ losing our sense of self. But this new definition of emptiness as “inconceivable possibility” helps free me from that fear, as does the reality of Interbeing.  Freedom comes not by just reading the words, but in meditation trying to rest my active mind, to hold any little fears, anger, worry that might arise in meditation for a few moments, greeting the feelings as old friends who pop in to let me know that they are still present in my life. Instead of getting totally wrapped up in their gloomy projections of the future or the messy bogs of the past, I hold them gently, smiling, then let them go, so something new can arise in my mind.

Yesterday’s four extra hours were a gift I could invite with anticipation of the surprises it would bring or waste it away.  Part of me was delighted to have the time to decide for myself what I wanted to do and part was confused by this new opportunity.  I decided to look at my feelings, journal, share with a friend, hear her advice, and enjoy whatever happened next.  When I emailed a meditation teacher friend, she suggested that I “just BE.” She said, “In the unexpected SPACE I sometimes find myself inspired.” She is writing three books at the moment, so her inspirations benefit others greatly.  I found a plan forming in my mind to spend more time outdoors, to join a Qi Gong class, go to a meeting that inspires me, take time to rest, read, relax, not escape into mindless activities when tempted.

Theoretically, I know this. I have practiced meditation in some form for decades. I teach meditation, just gave a retreat for women on Mindfulness last weekend. But there is strong energy in me of DOing rather than BEing. It is a practice, a daily challenge, for me to just BE, to do nothing, to allow my body, mind and spirit the space to relax, to be part of the vast, exciting, unfolding universe of which I am a small part. Why not let myself go with the flow of the rest of the day, do my best to practice “emptiness” as “ inconceivable possibility” today rather than “nothingness” or “void.”  Who knows what might happen?  Out of the darkness might come stars and a rising sun.

 

by Nick Kenrick

by Nick Kenrick

Life is GREAT!  It’s spring!  My husband inspired me on the morning of the first day of spring….he went outdoors to do some Qi Gong  in the fresh spring air….the moon was coming through the mist…he summoned me to the back porch to see it.  He urged me to read Ken Cohen’s book The Way of Qi Gong about “Harmonizing with Seasonal Qi: Flowing with Change.”  There is so much transition in my life these months – spring bursting through a brutal, arctic winter, all the people closest to me going through huge changes in their lives, some moving half way round the world, another transitioning from a long-term job.

Cohen says “resistance to disease is lowered during times of transition, whether this be positive or negative emotional change, a change of employment or environment or the change of seasons.  An important benefit of Qi Gong is an improved ability to flow with changing situations.”

I tried this classic meditation for attuning to the seasonal changes by the fourth century alchemist Ge Hong, adapted by Cohen for the Spring Equinox.  Stand outdoors facing east.  Imagine clouds of healing green Qi flowing from the east and entering the body.  Inhale the Qi or imagine it entering the top of the head or the pores of the skin….as green Qi fills the body, see oneself as beautiful green jade.

Is this a version of visualizing oneself as a tiny molecule of the “instant cosmos” in the last blog??  Will folks think I’ve “taken a turn around the bend”??  Whatever!  Why not!  Once I decided that the God of my youth was way too small for my needs, I’ve become more open to whatever works, however strange it might sound to others.  Energy (“Qi”) is definitely a divine form in my body, my spirit, the buds on trees, the moon shifting among clouds, the dawn of a new day.

Let me know how you celebrate the advent of Spring!

And come to our new Qi Gong class beginning April 9 at the Takoma Park Recreation Department – Wednesdays at 7:30pm.  See Patrick’s wonderful description at ajourneymanswayhome.blogspot.com.

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Florida February 28-March 5

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Maryland March 10

Coming back from a wonderful Women’s Retreat in FL, I met much news – changes in the lives of several dear ones that will greatly affect my life.   The switch from warm sun to freezing weather back home, from leisure to draw, photograph, walk and eat in silence to exciting conversations at home was sudden and intense.  I love the excitement of being connected to people making huge changes in their lives, share their joys and fears….while still keeping a solid place within my self and my home where they can all be peaceful in the peace in my heart.

I want to be an “island to myself” that I can also share with loved ones, sponsees, suffering people.  I need a balance of time alone meditating, writing, creating, doing my new art, retreat and Qi Gong projects, thinking, walking in nature and time closely enmeshed with loved ones, listening deeply, sharing my heart, being inspired by them to reach higher in my own artistic and spiritual work, balancing work/people time with rest/quiet time.  They “inter-are,” yet time must be made for both activities and rest.

Like waves on the ocean, life always moves and changes.  Every moment, in every cell of our bodies, the flow goes on night/day, yin/yang, suffering/joy, winter/spring.  New life is sprouting from the intensity of the last few day –  all the news, the changes, including the death of a very sweet man who drank again and died a sudden, violent death.  Back in touch with newspapers and internet, I heard about the plane from Malaysia that disappeared, no trace, even oil in water!  Hijacked?  Hidden?  All dead in the sea??  Especially vivid story while a very dear family member is in that part of the world.

Life is so short, so precious, so connected to all the lives around us.  Yet life goes on for me now, brief and intense as it is (Monty’s death a reminder of how short).   I want each day, each moment to flower, shine, sparkle, send fragrance, joy and love to others, emerge from the mud to delight my creator.  I can see the mud, the snow and ice as doors of liberation.  Without suffering, our joy might never be recognized by us or others.  Joy and suffering inter-are.  Activity and rest inter-are.  Other people and myself inter-are.  Two sides of the same piece of paper.

Today I want to LIVE FULLY, really, as the whole me, a full person, tiny but as beautiful as the crocus in my yard.

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This morning dawned cloudy but warmer than the many before it full of ice and snow.  I heard thunder for the first time in weeks, then noticed the sun emerging for a moment from the clouds.  I felt an urge to write, more than my daily journaling, to communicate with you again about the power of meditation in my life, how it has transformed my morning feelings and my life.  I stopped and breathed.

Over the last couple of decades, I have developed daily habits of mindful sitting meditation, eating meditation, walking meditation that have transformed my suffering greatly and allowed me touch the peace and beauty of the present moment.
We can’t meditate wrong – if whatever we do helps us stop the mindless “doing” escaping energy that keeps us from seeing ourselves, others and our world as it really is.  Once we stop, even momentarily, to breathe, feel our heart beating, smile at the beauty of nature, we can touch peace, stability, reality.  No matter what is happening inside us or outside in the world, if we are breathing, we are alive.
Then we can concentrate on touching our own suffering and transforming it in mindful breathing, being in the present moment.  Once we have a solid habit of stopping for twenty minutes in the morning and several times throughout the day, we might stop running from our suffering long enough to look deeply at its source.

“What am I feeling right now, at this moment?”  Fear, anger, frustration, anxiety or calm, peace, happiness?  Both joy and sorrow at once?  “Is this “doing” energy my mother in me, always worried that we will not have enough to eat based on her loss of her own father and his support of the family in the Great Depression?”  Once I recognize my mother in me, anxiously pushing food on family members at my husband’s birthday party, I take a breath, relax a bit, and smile at her energy in me.  She passed away 38 years ago, but she lives in my body, mind, heart and habit energy – both her anxieties and her great love.  As I recognize her anxiety in me, I breathe and smile, nourishing her love and breathing peace in my body, mind and heart.  I love continuing my mother’s best qualities in me, my father’s best qualities, still transforming their difficulties and mine in this beautiful moment.

I also take some time every morning to look at the suffering in the world – Syria, Ukraine, Egypt, Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, in DC – in all people who suffer from war, poverty, oppression, abuse.  I call friends who are ill, dying, suffering from addictions and loss of loved ones.  Suffering abounds in our world, suffering we need to see, touch, and do whatever we can to heal and transform.  When we understand our own suffering, we will be able to understand the suffering of others and help them transform it, with the help of our brothers and sisters.

I made a formal commitment to my meditation teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and my world-wide sangha in our ordination ceremony in 2011 into the Order of Interbeing to “recognize, accept, embrace and listen to our own suffering with the energy of mindfulness…to not run away from our own suffering or cover it up through consumption but practice conscious breathing and walking to look deeply into the roots of our suffering…in order to help myself and others transform suffering into compassion, peace and joy.”

Thank you to all of you who help me to do this each day.  Thank you to the sun that peeks from rain clouds to invite me to smile.  I have so much more gratitude and love in this moment than suffering.

                                Failling star*

Today I woke with mind dwelling on an unpleasant scene during a meeting yesterday, feeling I might need to “DO” something about it, but what?  Would interfering with other people’s feelings and actions, just make it worse?  Should I stay in my own “hula hoop”?

So, I did my morning routine, journaling about my thoughts, dreams, feelings: “So many shoulds, worry about other people, what they are doing or not doing.  Why not look at yourself, Joann….deal with this sadness, loneliness that you are feeling, the lack of stimulation, exercise, giving of yourself to others, a contrast to the joy you felt on Christmas day with family.  Feeling “bored with myself” or something.  Tired of winter already, of being cooped up indoors, afraid of getting sick in the cold, self-centered, lazy, indolent, hibernating, feeling old and useless.  Ridiculous when I’m healthy for a woman in her ‘70‘s with only a couple of chronic diseases.  The cure for feelings is to DO something, not just sit around, girl!  It’s what you’d tell other people, so do it!  Stop beating up on yourself!”

I went outdoors to see the lovely moon at dawn, offered it a quick “Moonlight” Qi Gong exercise, more indoors with my husband, a reading (the 4th of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings) that helped me focus on my own suffering and begin to transform it in a 30 minute meditation.  Then I found a passage in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Love Letter to the Earth that I knew would finish the transformation of my suffering (small though it is compared to most people’s suffering in the world) into gratitude and celebration of life.

After reminding us of the billions of years it took for the earth to being to manifest living beings, the development of life in the oceans fed by light particles from distant stars, Thay says “I promise to remember our extraordinary journey of eons and to live my days with awareness that we are all your children, and that we are all made of stars.  I promise to do my part, contributing my own energy of joy and harmony to the glorious symphony of life.”

Wow!  I can do that today, my small part – to contribute my own energy of joy and harmony to the glorious symphony of life that has been pulsating on this planet for billions of years!  I can’t miss this day, this opportunity, wallowing in negative thoughts, feelings or illusions.  I am, we are made of stars!  Let’s shine today.

 

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I promised my husband I would stay home today, healing the first symptoms of a cold, staying off icy streets.  If it causes him less stress, I will, but it is difficult for me to stay indoors during the winter.  I might feel lonely, my mind tells me, even though many hours of each day I spend alone writing, preparing for retreats, practicing Qi Gong, meditating, reading, communicating with suffering friends.

On Tuesdays, I usually invite the bell at Stillwater, but the building is closed when schools are closed.  So, our group sat warm and cozy in our homes, thinking of one another, doing the practice that enriches our lives, relieves stress and useless negative thinking.  Before I began the meditation, I read from Love Letter to the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh: “I can awaken to the fact that I am alive, and that life is a precious miracle.  I can awaken to the fact that I am never alone and can never die.  The earth is always there within me and around me at every step, nourishing me, embracing me and carrying me into the future.”

I used the phrases “I am never alone” and “I can never die” for the focus of my concentration in meditation.  I visualized all the friends and family members who enrich my life with their love, including some who have continued in a new form.  They can never die as long as they are alive in me, in my memory, in the actions that are influenced by their love.  I watched the gentle snow falling.  How short the life of a snowflake, we think.  It forms from air, water, dust, takes a beautiful and unique form, floats through the atmosphere, lands among millions of its peers and eventually melts.  But it can never “not be.”  Just as we can never really “die.”  Our bodies, minds and feelings change constantly, transforming, growing, changing form.  Without these changes, new life would not be possible.

I am grateful for these teachings of “no birth, no death,” watching the snow falling, resting.connecting with you.