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Category Archives: Impermanence

Duck Sligo

 

This morning, my husband and I enjoyed Qi Gong and meditation on Sligo Creek.  As we sat on a bench to meditate, I noticed a duck in the creek watching for fish to swim by for his breakfast.  I was fascinated by the duck’s patience, hardly moving a muscle watching the water with a slight head movement now and then.  I knew I had a focus for my meditation, the patience and stillness of animals, trees and rocks in this beautiful spot.   Could I ever be that still, even for twenty minutes?  The sound of the water trilling over rocks, the gentle spring breeze and occasional glances at the duck and the sunlight reflecting on the boulders next to the water all enhanced my meditation.  I felt one with nature, with all of life, allowing the beauty and peace to penetrate my body and mind.

When we finished our meditation, I asked Patrick if he saw the duck.  We weren’t sure that any animal could remain in one position for so long.  So we went closer to have a better look and discovered that our “duck” was a piece of branch holding several fallen winter leaves in the water.  Our teacher of patience had taken a different form than the one we both had in our minds.  We smiled.  The lesson happened, even though our perception was incorrect.  And don’t ducks have many “non-duck elements”?

Reading the news after breakfast, I carried the same question “Are you sure?” to articles about the civil war in Syria, the exchange of the American soldier for five Taliban leaders, sexual abuse in the navy, the death of a local hip-hop artist.  I have also been reading the draft of a wonderful book that delves into the shaping of people who end up on opposite sides of a genocidal civil war.  In a world full of both conflict and great peace, would it be useful to constantly ask myself the question “Are you sure, Joann…are you sure?” when I am ready to impose a view, speak out strongly against a perceived wrong, take sides in an argument.  Even my eyes perceive only what they perceive in a moment, and the duck I see might just be leaves clinging to a branch in the water.

May my mind stay open today, trying to perceive what I see, hear what I hear, be whatever I am in the moment, open to the lessons of nature, people, events, letting go of the need to be sure.

Non-duck

 

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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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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.

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Ahh, at last!  Sunlight!  After four days and nights of rain and clouds, the sky began to clear enough for the moon to appear last night.  Then this morning – real, bright sunshine bursting through the clouds.  How did you survive this period of rain and cold?  How are you surviving the government shut-down, the craziness in our congress that threatens our economy and way of life?

I lean on my meditation practice, trying to stay in the present moment, mindful that we are spinning on Planet Earth at a great rate of speed around the sun.  Everything changes.  I can’t find ultimate security in any single person, place, thing or government.  Having the Earth as the ground upon which I stand reminds me of the need for rain, for clouds, for change to bring about growth necessary for our survival.  My feelings sometimes wilt with rain, yearning for the sunlight.  Then it is important for me to keep doing “the next right thing,” to keep moving, to be outdoors even when the weather is uninviting, to stay close to positive people like my husband, to focus on helping others, to love.  I know from years of experience that the sunshine will come through the clouds, that the other side of sadness is joy, that problems help us find solutions.

I look for understanding from wise ones, like Thich Nhat Hanh in his Love Letter to the Earth (p. 37):  “We should put on our seat belt (of mindfulness).  We should enjoy every moment.  In each of these moments (cloudy or sunny), we can be in touch with the wonders of life.  We don’t need to run away from or cover up our painful feelings or try to forget unpleasant memories.  We don’t need something to help us to forget.  We only need to know how to remember; we need to know how to create moments of joy and happiness, how to water what is nourishing within us, and how to become aware of the wonders of life around us.”  Within each rain drenched leaf on the tree is the sunbeam of energy and life.  Within my heart is all I need to be happy in this moment.

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“Transformation and healing are possible…..Since transformation is possible, garbage can become flowers, and afflictions can become enlightenment.”

“There are always enough internal and external conditions to make us happy in the present moment. This is not to deny that there are also elements of suffering in us and around us. But the elements of suffering do not remove the elements of happiness. If we touch only suffering elements, we are not really living.” Thich Nhat Hanh’s

    Understanding the Mind

,p. 234-240.

We have just been through a week that strengthens this teaching about impermanence and happiness for us. My dear husband’s only remaining immediate family member-his brother- passed away suddenly last Sunday. There have been moments of deep sorrow, tears, feeling a hole inside. But we have also experienced laughter at old memories, walks by our favorite creek, the sweetness of a beloved child’s hug, calls from friends, reunion with family members.

Without impermanence, change, there is no transformation of suffering. One moment follows another. The briefness of life makes each moment so precious, so worth living fully. Our intention during the long days of wakes and the funeral was to be a fully present to our loved ones as possible, to remain awake, feeling what we felt in the moment, opening our hearts with compassion, letting go of any regrets.

A deep bow of gratitude to each of you who walked this path with us all week and those who will be with us, helping us transform suffering into beautiful flowers throughout our lives.

sunset -retreatjpg My friend Elizabeth died yesterday morning at 4:00am. Another friend called me to say she woke at that time, that she felt her friend saying goodbye to her. Her husband sent a beautiful announcement out on the website. I was sad all day after I heard, feeling the need to reach out to others who knew her. She was a quiet person, quietly doing what she knew to be God’s will – an immigration lawyer who helped thousands of people, raising two sons, one challenged, having her aging missionary parents live in her basement,a loving husband, church member. I liked her a lot, liked that she didn’t sugar coat how hard it was to go through this, to leave everyone she loved, to let go of her work. But she did. We all do. If we don’t let go, we are “dragged” as they say! We have to let go, to accept the impermanence of everything, all relationships, all the beauty and transitoriness of flowers, clouds, sunlight, babies, ultimately of life itself.

Somewhere deep in my heart I do believe, and experienced in ’94 when I almost died, that the “other side” is good, more free of the physical suffering, the delusions, the struggles. And there are billions of people who have gone through what we all face. It’s the “not knowing” what’s ahead, the many pictures of the dead, cold bodies we leave, the pain in those left behind that we know. But we don’t know for sure what we face….I want to say “personally,” but Buddhism is helping me understand that that is the ultimate “letting go,” of SELF, of our notion of separate, individual being. That I will no longer be the ME that I have come to know so deeply, to love, to hold onto and protect, to work so hard to understand her history, her relationships, her mission in life, her work, her loves? But that is the source of our suffering the Buddha says, to cling to the notion of the separate SELF that continues even after death.

So, do we become truly “ONE” with all others, with the sun, the moon, the stars, with unimaginable beauty, goodness and delights that we have tasted only in a limited way, seen “as through a glass darkly” on earth? Or is that the notion I grew up with in my Christian days, looking forward to a “heaven” that would be so different from life on earth.

Can we start to do that NOW, in this moment through meditation, letting go, loving as deeply as possible, mindfulness, being in this moment in which is all of human history, all goodness, all life, all beauty, all great art. LIVE NOW! Try to make each moment as wide and deep and rich and beautiful as possible – not only for “ourselves” but for all the people, the earth, the beings we touch today. Celebrate my niece’s wedding today. Lead a great, healing Day of Mindfulness at Blueberry Gardens tomorrow! YES
YES, says my heart. YES!

LIFE is NOW! HERE and NOW! My friend lives on in my heart NOW! My sadness and joy are one, in the here, in the NOW.

“As human beings our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world…as being able to remake ourselves.” Gandhi

This remaking process is life-long, our main task perhaps, to recognize more and more deeply the wounds and gifts transmitted to us by parents and ancestors and to transform ourselves into a gift to others. To understand and love ourselves, to understand and love our neighbor.

I have been aided in this process in the last few months by Emotional Alchemy by Tara Bennett-Goleman. This book was one of the inspirations for the women’s retreat I made in Florida in February and that Ruth Fishel (www.ruthfishel.com) and I will use for an upcoming retreat in WV May 31-June 2. Working with Bennett-Goleman’s notions of “schemas” or a “habits the mind uses to organize, store and act on a given task,” I have discovered some old, deep views of myself and patterns of behaving that no longer serve me. The author urges us to use mindful meditation as a prime tool for awareness of our patterns and also for changing the patterns.

Recently I had an experience that helped me look more deeply into one of my “schemas.” I heard that others had made a plan that I felt ignored my stated needs. I felt anger welling up in my throat and said, “No, that won’t work” in a way that afterwards seemed unnecessarily abrupt and defensive. Although I was glad that I had spoken up for my needs, I knew I would owe someone an amends for my anger. Following the recommendations of my meditation teachers, I immediately went outdoors to sit for a moment in the beauty of a spring morning and breathe. I had ten minutes before the person called back and in that time, calmed my body with conscious breathing, feeling the anger, recognizing my “subjugation schema” and opening my mind to my connections to the earth, the sky, the lovely redbud tree, the air coming into my body. My life was not being threatened. What I felt was an old, deep habit of feeling powerless and helpless, controlled by a church that dominated my every thought, word and action. My usual reaction was either grudging compliance (trying to be the good little girl who wouldn’t go to hell if she just behaved, pleasing the unreasonable god of my youth) or rebelling in anger that my needs and feelings didn’t count. “Ah,” I thought, it’s my “subjugation schema” acting up. I recognize you, have called you other names – the character defects of fear and anger. I have often acted upon these instincts and gotten myself into trouble. Now I have many tools and friends to help me change these deep patterns in my brain, my body, my mind and actions.

Throughout the week, there were other calls about the same issue, more drama, increased demands. Although I made other mistakes along the way, I was eventually able to extricate myself and find another solution. I now feel I’ve learned something to share with you.

Mindful breathing helps me no matter what the situation or feeling. It is a tool that I can use anywhere, any time to bring calm and peace to my body and mind. I stop, pause, try not to give a quick answer to a new proposal. I seek advice from teachers, mentors, friends who know me and love me. I pray to the Universe to remind me that I am never alone, that I am connected to all the wise ones, to the best in my ancestors, to all the beauty and freedom of the earth, that I have choices in my thoughts, feelings and behavior. It helps me greatly to have a firm daily meditation practice every morning, so that I remember to turn to meditation when I need it during the day.

Here are some the lessons I learned from looking more deeply at an old habit formed in childhood, seeing how it harms me and others today and finding some actions to take to change my behavior (with the support of loved ones like you):

1.Trust my gut, my best instincts.

2.When someone offers a plan I don’t feel right about or am too tired to make a decision, say “I’ll let you know later.” NOT “Ok.”

3.I don’t have to do ANYTHING I’m uncomfortable doing, unless I think it’s the RIGHT thing to do and need to walk through the discomfort to grow.

4.I have needs. I usually know them, but if I need time to feel what they are and articulate them, it’s fine.

5.If I feel anger or frustration rising, I can say, “I’ll get back to you” and hang up. Then BREATHE, look at my feelings, try to understand what’s going on in me.

6.I don’t need to adopt other people’s plans, drama and urgency as mine. I work hard to keep drama out of my life (except for films and novels).

7.I have a “subjugation” schema that either leads to anger or conceding to things I don’t really want to do. I need to speak my needs clearly and do my own work to meet my needs.

8.I can change these schemas and be FREE!

9. I spend much time relieving stress in myself and others, so why would I deliberately put myself into a stressful situation?

Just as those tiny redbuds burst forth from seemingly solid wood, so can fresh new habits form, new brain waves grow, new freedom emerge.

 

c@rljones

c@rljones

For the last several years a friend and I have been offering women’s meditation retreats that are very powerful and transforming.  I had just returned from one in Florida to hear that the dates for our May retreat in WV had been taken by another group.  This news was upsetting because we had advertised widely and begun receiving deposits.  Was there another weekend open?  Would the retreat happen?  The retreats are very important to me, one of the main ways I have found in retirement to give to others some of the great gifts I have received in meditation, tools that keep transforming my life.

The anxiety and frustration I experienced waiting to hear from my contact at the retreat venue for the next 24 hours was a great opportunity to “practice what I preach” on the retreats.  My partner and my husband reminded me to BREATHE, relax, take it easy, not struggle, trust.  Ruth (www.ruthfishel.com) was very confident that new dates would work out fine.  I used Qi Gong to keep my vital energy moving, meditation and prayer to calm my mind and help me think clearly.  I focused on taking care of my feelings instead of bugging the person from whom I wanted an answer NOW.  What was going on beneath the surface?  Ego? Fear of embarrassment?  Of not getting what I wanted?  Losing the respect of my women friends? I even knelt down (a desperate posture for this ex-nun) and turned the problem over to the God of my understanding, the Force of Love, the great Mother Earth, the Universe that is bigger than all of us, holding and caring for all our needs.  I wrote “May retreat” on a tiny piece of paper and put it in my God box.  To “turn it over,” I called up the image of Life as a rushing river in which I had the choice to cling stubbornly to a boulder in the middle or “let go” and “go with the flow” of its energy.

Then I noticed that other opportunities were flowing in at the same time – a location for our free Qi Gong class in May, a good movie, a great meeting.  I could give my attention to other people and their needs, letting my anxiety take a backseat.  Waiting is one of the hardest things in the world for me to do – hence my vast need for the tools of meditation, relaxation, patience, ego reduction, a sense of humor that brings perspective.

Relief came eventually, a call last night assuring me that a new date had been scheduled for our retreat.   I need these oases of nourishing peace, joy and calm as much as any of our retreat participants.  And there must be Forces greater than me involved in all the good that flows from them.

“Want to make God laugh?  Show her your plans.”

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My meditation and Qi Gong this morning were very powerful. I did the last four movements of Sunlight QG in the kitchen facing a real, strong, bright sun penetrating thick cloud cover. Symbolic for health and strength taking hold in my recovering body. I felt the sun’s Qi, energy force, coming directly into my body, opening channels that had been clogged for two weeks, helping blood and energy flow through me as I moved. I knew that I was finally more well than ill.

My readings from Ruth Fishel’s Time for Joy and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Understanding our Mind further energized my spirit. In his chapter on Interbeing, Thay tells me that the Buddha taught that there are Five Powers (see future blogs for the other four).

“First is the power of faith. We need to have faith in the possibility of touching nirvana, of awakening to suchness. This is not blind faith, it is based on our understanding, insight and experience.”

Yes, said my heart, my faith is based on an understanding that my health, my very life is impermanent and at the same time eternal, linked to the life force that has existed in all beings long before my time and will continue long after I live in this moment, in this body. I have had much experience with health challenges, as have most humans. This experience tells me that illness comes and goes, that none of us escape illness. But even during the longest days of listlessness, coughing, loneliness, uselessness and fatigue, I knew for certain, based on my experience, that these feelings and bodily weakness would pass. Now they have passed! I need to be careful as I try to resume some “normal” activities, but I am moving in the direction of health, energy and life today.

The insight? That I am never alone, no matter how alone I feel….that I am one with the energy of sunlight even when I cannot see it, that all suffering can be transformed with the energy of mindfulness. As last week I surrendered to the reality of illness, today I surrender to the energy of life. I smile a genuine smile of deep happiness. All life is a gift. I am so grateful – for both the clouds and the sunlight.

This is my 10th day of illness with the flu. I denied it at first, thought it might be a three-day cold that I could escape with vitamins, rest and fluids. I have not been ill in so long I can hardly remember….a year at least. The coughing continues, keeps me awake at night, challenges me to stay indoors – with myself.

I suppose I could consider that this has been a ten-day retreat – with many hours of silence, being alone, quieting my mind and stilling my body, watching snow fall outside the window – as if I could really do much else. I would make lemonade with this gift of alone silence, a very inexpensive retreat, a time to let go of imagined responsibilities and take care of the one person I could.

Most mornings I was able to do my meditation routine: journaling and Sunlight Qi Gong, facing east in the kitchen, knowing that the sun is there, behind the thick clouds.  I’m sure it is….a scientific fact, right?  Then prayer and meditation in the big black chair after reading a page of Ruth’s Time for Joy and a passage from Thay’s Understanding the Mind.

It is so comforting to have a morning practice of prayer and meditation, something I can do even when ill.  It restores my focus on living in this day, accepting the gifts life has to give me in this moment – a warm home, a loving husband, healthy happy children and grandchild, friends, the stark beauty of winter ice.  I am connected, at peace, hoping to be of service again soon.  My glass is always way more than half full.