Posts Tagged ‘Thich Nhat Hanh’

The Post – Leave it to Black Elk, Thomas Merton, and David to Get Things Back on Track

April 29, 2008

Sunday’s gift post read:

“I cured with the power that came through me. Of course, it was not I who cured, it was the power from the Outer World, the visions and the ceremonies had only made me like a hole through which this power could come to the two-leggeds.

If I thought that I was doing it myself, the hole would close up and no power would come through. Then everything I could do would be foolish.”

Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Souix (1863-1950)

I owe a thank-you to Black Elk. He reminded me of something I’d been forgetting.

It’s been a long winter. Illness, colonoscopy, biopsies, endoscopy, more biopsies, lack of sleep, ER and doctor visits, pulled muscles…. Over the course of 4 months my coping abilities went through the floor while my exhaustion skyrocketed. I kept going, but it felt like I was carrying a 10-ton load on my back, and not very well.

The pulled muscles were the icing on the cake as that took away my treasured daily walks, my meditative time when I do a rosary. When I was younger I thought the rosary was boring and useless. These days I’ve grown to love it. And for whatever reason, its effect seems to be most powerful when on my walks – the synergy of prayer and nature. The repetition of the prayers are a meditation of sorts — one of those types of ceremonies Black Elk refers to — that centers you, restores you, gives you love to share with others, and opens that hole in your soul that allows the Universe to work through you. And for the record, anything really worthwhile or successful that I’ve “done” in life, I didn’t really do. That power came from elsewhere.

In any event, with everything that had happened over the winter, my rituals had become infrequent. Not done on purpose, just that not feeling well, I figured I’d let it go until I felt better. That was a mistake. I’d forgotten that my true power came from opening to something greater than myself. I was like a car on empty, continuing to drive without stopping to refuel. How far can you really go doing that?

Black Elk said that in his own life, without that outer world power coming through the hole in him, anything he tried to do was foolish. I could relate.

Once Black Elk caught my ear, of course Thomas Merton decided to chime in. Thomas Merton was a Catholic monk, a spiritual contemplative, who was a prolific writer and a visionary and who studied with monastics of other traditions, including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. Anyway, on the wall over my desk, I have this piece Merton wrote:

“The more you can work in a spirit of detachment, the closer you come to working for God than working for yourself, and the less strain there is on your nerves. You do not worry about things so much, and therefore, you don’t get so confused, so mixed up, so tired. In fact, you recognize that your self-love, your pride, is trying to take over the work by your reaction. When you’re exhausted and upset and haunted by work that seems to be going badly, it means that you’re working for yourself and are taking the consequences. But when you are free, you work with an ease that amazes you. Half the time, without any necessity for special thought on your part, God seems to remove obstacles and do half the work for you. When God wants a thing done, the speed with which it achieves completion and success almost takes your breath away.”

I realized I’d not been working in any kind of spirit, much less one of detachment, and I was taking the consequences. I’d forgotten that I am that hole Black Elk speaks of, the tool to be used, not the power behind it. I needed that force to remove the obstacles, and carry the load. In reality, we are all that hole….each of us is the tool to be used by a power greater than us if we allow it. And it’s that power that can achieve great things, things much larger than we can ever do alone. I’d just forgotten about that.

As soon as that light bulb went off, I decided it was time to get back to walking, even if only briefly, and it was time to also start that rosary again. Its amazing, but even before I finished that first walk and rosary, I could feel the shift in myself. It was like coming home.

Psalm 121, the Song of Ascents says:

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?

2 My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

So, David, Black Elk and Thomas Merton, three different holy men from different times and cultures, but they all pointed to the same source, and they all spoke the same language – that of the soul. I am grateful to all three.

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The Post – The Breath, Compassion, and Pacifiers

March 24, 2008

Over the years I’ve read about or studied different kinds of meditation. Some wanted you to focus on a word or sound repeated over and over, others on a lit candle. More recently the focus was on trying to keep a totally blank mind and completely halt all the “noise” and the 10000 things running through your brain every minute. Of course I failed at all of them…as do most people. You’re so focused on a goal, on doing it perfectly, that when you can’t measure up, you give up out of frustration or despair.

On the flip side, I suspect that if you are lucky enough to achieve what these methods want…or at least you think you achieved it, the danger is that then you might walk around feeling so proud of yourself, so much better than others because “you achieved it.” You can try “not to go there,” but it’s hard, and even if you manage not to be proud, there is also the danger of feeling “overly holy and falsely humble” about your accomplishment.

One of the things I like about Buddhism is it’s emphasis on “Middle path.” No extremes of perfection or failure. This extends to its approach to meditation practice – “acceptance” of, in fact, it’s emphasis on the fact that you’ll never be perfect and it’s not about a goal. It’s always about “letting go and coming back to the breath.” Whether the teacher is Thich Nhat Hanh, from the Zen tradition, or Jack Kornfield from the Theravadan tradition, the point is not to “eradicate” what’s going on in you, but on simply to notice it and let it go on. You don’t waste a lot of energy either trying to get rid of all the thoughts, or giving them more importance than they’re worth. You just notice what is happening, acknowledge it, let it go, and come back to the breath.

Even that though, is easier said than done and human beings have a way of making anything a goal or contest. I think the one part of those instructions that I find most useful is: “Come back to the breath.” The reality is, we will be distracted for the rest of our lives. There’s bills, fights with people, retirement planning, kids, whatever. SOMETHING is always creeping in. That’s being human. And as nice as it is to say “notice it, don’t judge it, just let it go” even that is impossible. Something sticks in our throat and it replays in our heads over and over. Our anger, hurt, pride, despair, fear, will get hooked and we have a hard time letting that go. Accept it. We all do it. We always will. Instead of beating yourself up about any of this you simply, come back to the breath.

At first glance that might seem like a useless approach. Someone more “austere” might say “Well what kind of mental discipline is that?” The point is, it’s not about “discipline.” It’s not about self-flagellation, beating yourself up, getting rid of anything, or trying to be perfect. It’s about being human, and it’s about compassion. Being gentle with yourself. It’s about accepting and loving who you are. Even with all the noise in the brain, you can chuckle at your foibles and still say I’m a good person. I’m full of love, even when I’m distracted.

So why bother learning to treat yourself with compassion in your meditation practice? Because it is the way you train yourself to be compassionate with yourself in life. Instead of expecting yourself to be perfect at jobs, parenting, being a spouse, friend, being a human being, you simply note ‘I did my best. Yup, messed that one up, it happens.’ You pick up the pieces. You make amends. You come back to whatever it was you were trying to do and start over. You “come back to it” again and again and again, with no hope of perfection, simply the willingness to “show up and try again.” So if you can accept with compassion, an imperfect meditation practice and come back to the breath, you can learn to do the same for yourself in life.

Is there a benefit to treating yourself with compassion in life?

Yes. Aside from giving yourself some inner peace and acceptance, it is the only way you can exercise that “heart muscle” and learn to give that same gift to others. If you are so hung up on perfection in yourself, will you learn to cut somebody else any slack? Will you even notice anybody is there struggling, too, if you’re so wrapped up in your own struggle to be perfect? And if you can’t accept yourself as less than perfect, will you be able to accept anybody else’s mis-steps? Come back to the breath. Come back to life. Settle yourself, with compassion.

I often noticed how babies settle down when you give them a pacifier. It’s like they need that to stop whatever is winding up in them, settle down, and come back to calm. I’ve joked that maybe adults need them, too. Something that makes you shut your mouth, take a break from the world, focus on something small, and return to calm.

Given that they don’t have adult pacifiers, perhaps coming back to the breath is the next best thing?

PS People often say animals are intuitive and sometimes animals have more compassion than people. If you think the benefits of coming back to the breath and being peaceful, are limited to humans, check out the CNN article:

Zen (dog) Master: A New Take on Prayer Position

This article has two other lessons about life:

1) Sense of humor – Even in religion, a smile is the most important thing for compassion and inner peace.

2) Beginner’s Mind – Keep an open mind to new possibilities. You might write off the dog’s practice, but how do you know that on some level, he isn’t “feeling” the warmth of the compassion in the practice?

The Gift

March 12, 2008

“When our heart is full of love, then we are creating more love, peace, and joy in the world. When we send the energy of love and compassion to another person, it doesn’t matter if they know we are sending it. The important thing is that the energy is there and the heart of love is there and is being sent out into the world. When love and compassion are present in us, and we send them outward, then that is truly prayer.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, from his book, The Energy of Prayer: How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice

The Post – Stage Three: Coming Into My Own – Evolution TO a Novel

February 19, 2008

Initially, I was going to call this entry “Evolution of the Novel” thinking I would dig right in to the logistics of writing Under the Pier. But I realized before I could do that, I had to finish the process Uri Shulevitz outlined for the “Evolution of the WRITER.” From that it was clear that this entry’s title needed to be “Evolution TO a novel,” the final leg of coming into my own.

I have always struggled with the fact that others seem to do rings around me. My husband works in a job where not just every day, but every hour, the priorities change, the deadlines change, who he has working for him changes. It’s constant jumping. He has a quick, fast mind. My sisters and friends manage full-time jobs, more than one job, kids, house, pets, and other responsibilities. I thought maybe it’s a writer thing – writers just move at a slower pace. Yet I observe other writers producing novels, while writing articles, while chatting on the writers’ email lists, updating their web sites, promoting their books and doing school visits. It’s like trying to walk with someone who is always faster than you. The best you can do is maybe match them for a little while, but eventually, you always fall behind. For years it bothered me, and the competitive person inside kept trying to keep up or catch up. And I absolutely ABHORRED admitting to anyone, that I couldn’t keep up with them.

The title of last Thursday’s entry for Thich Nhat Hanh’s online course read: “Let Go.” The entry said: “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything . . . we cannot be free.” That was the answer I’d finally come to in the last year or so. Just, let it go. Even playing racquetball – I always fought to win when I was younger. Now I never win, but I have grown to love the process of just playing my best. Coming into your own is the moment you finally choose to be free. You let go of the competition and comparisons and just accept who you are.

I am a plodder. Plodders do not have fast brains. While others are rushing around, plodders just stare at them from the sidelines with their mouths open. Instead of snap conclusions, plodders pull things apart, stare at the parts, put them back together differently, then stare some more. Confronted with a pile of seemingly useless, unrelated bits of information, plodders push them around for hours or days or years, until finally a whole picture emerges. The one thing about plodders is that they never quit. They just keep plodding until they find the big picture and make sense of things. They feel the questions and keep going until they have an answer to the question, “What is it?”

It’s like when I did bacteriology. You start out with a confusing mass of all different kinds of bacterial colonies on an agar plate. You look it over until you spot the one that’s probably the culprit of the infection. You stare at the colony on the plate. What color is it? What’s its size, texture, smell? How does it look on different types of agar? What does it look like under the microscope? You run a battery of 20 or more biochemical tests. You end up with this heap of separate, seemingly unrelated bits of data, and the question – what is it? The answer comes from how all those pieces are assembled by a person too stubborn to quit. Assemble the bits like a mosaic and you have Staphylococcus aureus, or Escherichia Coli, or Enterobacter aerogenes, or my favorite, Campylobacter. 🙂

Maybe the thing that plodders and at least this writer have in common is the place inside where we carry both the tools to recognize the patterns, as well as the questions that need to be stared at.

I think stories come from the places within us that hold the unanswered questions. Those places hold the deepest hurts, the places of anger, confusion, sadness, the disappointments, the unsettled business, the tangles we never unknotted, the humiliations we’d like to forget, or the ugly things we don’t want to look at. And the happy moments. There’s the ultimate confusion in life: Why are some times happy and others abysmal? Plodders seek answers by picking through all the tangles, like a bag person picking through the garbage can. If the plodders also happen to be writers, they make their moments of picking through the trash, public. They write a story to document their quest for truth.

The story may not even resemble anything from the writer’s life. Last time I checked, no author has lived in futuristic space or slain any dragons. The story doesn’t have to be autobiography. What it must contain at its core are the questions that that writer carries in their heart. Writers then journey through what they write, to the ultimate whole picture, hopefully, the answer to their question. Some writers can express this journey to find their truth in a 4-line poem or succeed in capturing God in five words or less. Some write picture books. And some, like me, need the panoramic expanse of a longer, more meandering path. That means, novels.

It means plots and subplots, woven like twisted threads. It means primary characters, secondary characters, and maybe a few cardboard characters. It means diverse settings and tweaky, idiosyncratic details. I know this now, because I know me, now. I am exhausted and weary of trying to be what I am not. I am what I am, take it or leave it. Some will relate to my stories, some will hate them. No matter. I write, for me.

I’ve spent many, many years trying all different things on for size. I’ve tried to be what others are. Do what they did. I’m tired of that. I’m ready to be me. So I just, let go.

“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”

Cyril Connolly – 20th Century British literary critic.

UP NEXT: Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From

The Post – When You’re Mad, Give a Gift?

February 8, 2008

Yesterday morning’s reading for my online spirituality course with Thich Nhat Hanh was counter-intuitive to say the least. Some might read it and say “in your dreams.” Others might look at it and say, “That’s manipulative.” But I read it, and in spite of myself, I really did understand it. In fact, I’ve felt it happen now and then.

His words:

“There may be times when you are angry with someone, and you try everything you can to transform your anger, but nothing seems to work. In this case, the Buddha proposes that you give the other person a present. It sounds childish, but it is very effective. When we’re angry with someone, we want to hurt them. Giving them a present changes that into wanting to make them happy. So, when you are angry with someone, send him a present. After you have sent it, you will stop being angry with him. It’s very simple, and it always works.

Don’t wait until you get angry to go and buy the present. When you feel very grateful, when you feel you love him or her so much, then go and buy the present right away. But don’t send it; don’t give it to the other person yet. Keep it. You may have the luxury of having two or three presents stored secretly in your drawer. Later, when you feel angry, take one out and deliver it. It is very effective. The Buddha was very smart.”

Thich Nhat Hanh in Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames

Now at first thought, the idea of giving someone a gift when you want to throttle them, seems impossible, even laughable. Maybe something that blows up? But a real, honest-to-goodness gift? I don’t think so.

And the other person might think: “What’s this? You trying to make me feel guilty and manipulate me into liking you again? You’ve got hopes. Now I’m even angrier at you for pulling this!”

Yet, all skepticism aside, I know what he means and hard as it can be at that moment, it’s true. And it’s not childish. Child-like maybe. A big difference which I’ll mention below.

There have been times when I was angry with my husband and all sense of love and remembering “why I married him” evaporated into fantasies of how best to wring his neck. I’m sure he felt the same way. Revenge plots, not gift ideas, were the order of the day. Yet even in that moment there was that small voice that said “Do you love him?” And of course, the answer deep down was , “Yessss. I love him.” And the voice would answer, “Then if you love him, you cannot act that way.”

I’d remember that if something were to suddenly threaten him, I’d be right there by his side to protect or help him. I’d also remember the many good things shared, times his love saved me, the times things he did just melted my heart. The moment of capitulation would soon follow.

The moment of capitulation when trying to “hold your grudge” is the moment when you want to hate, but instead you remember and feel even a tiny inkling of your love. You feel frustrated with the Universe, for sure. My thoughts would run something like: “I really wanted my pound of flesh and instead, here’s the Universe deflating a good rage.” You feel the struggle of “But I’m mad at him,” versus “He’s my friend and I hate this. Can we just get back to being friends?”

The times that I’ve tried the counter-intuitive approach and gave in to the part that loves, it was like a crack in the dam of anger. By offering even just some tidbit of a compliment, or telling him something like “I’m really upset because I love you and I hate being at odds with you,” it was the thing that started to bring us both back to center. By refraining from revenge and instead remembering the love, by trusting to kindness instead of attacking, it made “space” for things to change. It became safe for both of us to leave our entrenched, polarized fortresses, hold up a flag of truce, meet in the middle, and discuss terms of surrender. And by the way, surrender is not “losing.” It’s “yielding” to a greater good. It’s the meeting of two to make something bigger and better than either one of us . . . or our egos.

I liked Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea to have a few gifts around, and to buy them when you are feeling those warm loving emotions for that person. The feelings will be stored in those gifts. When you take them out during anger, those objects release the good feelings back to you. What you stored in them – goodwill, love, the reminder that there are still good things between you – is like money in the bank you can withdraw at that moment. They are the tangible evidence that love existed, and they are the catalysts that start the process of softening the anger.

So perhaps it’s not so strange an idea after all, if you can just swallow the ego. I can see where it can bring things back from the brink. The gifts can be small – even a funny or loving card, just something that captures what is shared in the good moments. And it’s the lesson we can learn from kids.

If you watch kids play, one minute they’re fighting, two minutes later they’re friends again. Somebody picks up their marbles and runs home. A few minutes later they’re calling to ask if you can come over to play. Kids have the ability to live in the moment, not store up hostilities. They clear the air and move on. That’s probably what Thich Nhat Hanh meant by childish. I prefer the term “child-like” though. Childish can imply selfish, insensitive, immature. Child-like implies the best of being young – the ability to flow with things, to have an open mind, to be in the moment, to find awe in even the simplest things. Jesus said that we had to become like the little child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I believe He meant the same thing as Thich Nhat Hanh.

In any event, one thing I do concur with for sure: The gifts should be bought when happy. I’d hate to see what I’d come home with during rage. 🙂

The Post – There really IS a deeper process at work here

January 29, 2008

Some lighter fare on tap in the next few days…photos of Admiral Byrd waving his claw, Scarlett O’Hara and her molted ghost self, and . . . even the ever reclusive Melanie Hamilton! Finally caught her sitting on her “front porch” – ie the open hole in the Live Rock – at 6:30 this morning. Stay tuned.

For today: So does staring into a tank of fiddler crabs, never mind shooting photographs of them at 6:30 in the morning, REALLY have anything to do with writing?

The answer? It all depends. You mean you wanted a definite answer? Here’s a clue – Mindfulness and heart. Still confused?

Simply said, it’s what you bring to the situation. You can sit there and stare at them and your mind could be on the bills, what you’re going to buy at the grocery store, what you could be doing instead of sitting in front of a tank of crabs. You could sit there and nod, “Yup, they’re crabs. Eyestalks. Sideways walk. They all look alike. So what?”

Or you can sit there and notice that Melanie Hamilton has much tinier front claws than Scarlett O’Hara. That she is timid and almost never comes out of her crevice in the live rock…except early in the morning when the sunlight streams into the kitchen and hits that side of the tank. She loves to sit in the sunlight on her front porch. Or that Scarlett O’Hara, who normally never stops eating and never hides out, suddenly after molting has stopped eating and has refused to move from under the water filter. Or that Admiral Byrd, normally fearless, crawled into his tunnel cave after discovering Peter Lorre’s lifeless body and started twitching and wouldn’t eat.

The difference is how you watch. Are you fully present? And did you bring your heart? The heart makes all the difference.

I am taking an online spirituality course with some friends, studying the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh (pronouced Tick Naught Han). He is an 80-year-old Vietnamese monk who endured the horrors of the Vietnam War, came to America to try and stop it, and was deemed a threat by both the Communist and non-Communist regimes in Vietnam. While searching for peace, he found himself everybody’s enemy. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his efforts to stop the war, and in his later years one of his many healing works has been to heal the souls of former American servicemen haunted by that war. Having lost close personal friends to that war, he has every reason to hate Americans. Instead he’s spent half his life healing people around the world, including Americans.

He tells a story in one of his books about a young man who wanted to learn to draw lotus flowers. So he went to a master to apprentice with him. The master took him to the lotus pond and left him sitting there for 10 days. Can you imagine in today’s busy world, signing up for lessons to learn something quickly, only to be left sitting at a pond for 10 days?

The real essence was what the young man did with that time. He could have gotten impatient (something I know a lot about), and grumbled, sighed, walked away, went shopping, took a nap, try to do something USEFUL with that time instead of just sitting there. Instead for the whole time, he watched the flowers bloom when the sun was high. He watched them close into buds at night. He watched one flower wilt and drop its petals into the water, then studied the stalk, the stamen and the rest of the flower.

On the 11th day the master returned and brought him a brush to paint with. Although his picture showed his naivete of technique, a childish style, the lotus he painted was beautiful. Deep beauty shone from the painting. He had become the lotus and as such, even with poor technique, he could paint something that moved another’s heart.

Mindfulness and heart. He paid attention to the lotus. He worked from his heart. Writing, really good writing that moves people’s souls, comes from the heart, not the brain. You can write a technically beautiful book but without heart it’s a sterile desert emotionally.

I started out watching fiddler crabs not sure what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect them to have personalities and subtle differences in appearance and actions. And I most certainly didn’t expect to feel such upset as I watched Peter Lorre tumble off his rock, dead.

With any luck, at least a little part of me has become the crab. With just a little more luck, maybe that crab heart will come through in my book. I’d trade a whole bunch of technical expertise for just a handful of heart.

By the way, if of interest to read a good summary of Thich Nhat Hanh’s life, check out this link at Parallax Press.

http://www.parallax.org/about_tnh.html