Monthly Archives: September 2013

September: Wild Card

chapter4wildcard ch4

My daughter and I have finally agreed on a wild card.  It was through much deliberation on my end to come up with an enhancement for this month’s theme as Amy has thoroughly covered all areas, which I fully commend.  My daughter, Grace, on the other hand knew right away what she wanted for Beth to do this month.  Leave it to children and their “free” minds to celebrate an opportunity.  We know Beth is going through a lot of changes in her life at this time so we believe these requests are reasonable and beneficial for her.  So here they are…

Grace says – Beth must wear a mustache every time she meditates.  Now since Grace and I saw Jim before he left for St Croix today, and will be meeting up with Beth, he promised to pass on to her a pair of glasses with attached mustache that Grace insisted upon.  Stick on mustaches just wouldn’t hold up and these glasses are more like wearing a disguise or a hat.  It’ll definitely keep her in the moment of her meditating.  These “must” be worn anytime she meditates, even if it’s in front of others.  Testing the strengths of limiting distraction.

Aggie says – each week Beth needs to take a “day of silence”.  Beth is able to choose which day but these days must consist of no talking…at all.  Only communication with others will have to be by notes – handwritten or typed emails are acceptable.  The objective is to pull within to the extreme of recognizing what truly needs to be expressed, overcoming expectations of others and self and exercising will power.  It’s very easy for us to speak without thinking and reacting to our environment, thus this will give her the time to silence her being, mind and allow clarity to come forth for the true desired expression.  Beth is encouraged to write down or log any thoughts which occur on a day of silence that need to be discussed at a later time but they must be succinct by the time she is ready to speak them.

OK that is it!  Grace & I hope Beth enjoys the rest of her month’s living chapter and that these are attainable without being stressful wild cards.  Let us know if any elaboration or clarity is needed and thanks again for the opportunity!

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par·a·dise

What is your definition of paradise? Have you been there? Have you tasted it, heard it, inhaled it or held it?  Does “Paradise” exist? And why do we pine for it? I’ve been contemplating these questions this week, while attempting to meditate on the north side of St. Croix, a tropical island in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

On this particular trip and in past travel experiences through exotic places, I often wondered if I would stumble across paradise. I listened for it in the rainforest, looked underneath coral and shells for it, went swimming under  turquoise waters looking for it and sipped down multiple fresh mango smoothies trying to fill myself up with it.  Like in meditation, I feel somewhat lost in this search for paradise. Its as if I am wandering about trying to find some kind of bliss I am not even sure exists. What is being zen? Do you feel that way in paradise? And if so how do you find paradise?

Before giving up on this quest entirely, I decided to look in one more place: The online Merriam Webster Dictionary… and there it was! Alas paradise and its true meaning(s)

par·a·dise

noun \ˈper-ə-ˌdīs, -ˌdīz, ˈpa-rə-\

: a very beautiful, pleasant, or peaceful place that seems to be perfect

: a place that is perfect for a particular activity or for a person who enjoys that activity

: a state of complete happiness

These explanations left me a bit perplexed. How can paradise be so many things that are different and separate from one another?

So Webster is telling me this: Paradise is a PLACE, one that is so peaceful and beautiful that it seems to be perfect. Is it a place that makes one believe they are content and happy in its perfection, a place that intoxicates one with its surface beauty or the fruits it has to offer.

OR maybe

Paradise is a different PLACE for different people. It is really a place that is elusive in nature, and needs to be sought out and found in a step by step process. First by finding your individual “particular activity” or purpose then by seeking out the one and only and perfect place that will suit your purpose.

Merriam dictionary also says: Paradise is “an imaginary place or state of utter perfection and happiness”  So we have all been searching for an imaginary place of utter perfection? Did we somehow miss this definition in school growing up? I am not sure which is more difficult to track down – finding the imaginary place or one of utter perfection.

I looked a little further and found the origin of the word paradise.

“ Middle English paradis, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin paradisus, from Greek paradeisos, literally, enclosed park, of Iranian origin; akin to Avestan pairi-daēzaenclosure; akin to Greek peri around and to Greek teichos wall ”

The origin of this word seems to describe the feelings I  have personally when trying to define the word or search out this state for myself. I sometimes feel enclosed or boxed in, as if I have to follow Paradise’s prescribed notions. It was like Paradise itself had set up a boundary for me to search for something that may not exist instead of searching for and observing the things that do exist in my world right in front of me that bring happiness.

Well, where else would you go when lost in search of paradise?

Wikipedia of course: This is how it is defined there:

“Paradise is a religious or metaphysical term for a place in which existence is positive, harmonious and eternal. It is conceptually a counter-image of the supposed miseries of human civilization, and in paradise there is only peace, prosperity, and happiness. Paradise is a place of contentment, but it is not necessarily a land of luxury and idleness”

To me this seems like a bit more of a realistic description. Maybe its a post modern paradise?

I believe paradise can only be a place or state in which we interpret and experience individually. It is an existence that we can build for ourselves holding reality and positivity as a guide while, at the same time, letting go of all expectations of others’ definitions of perfection. It’s somewhere in the realization that we do not deserve, find or are given paradise – we create it.

So go ahead and find your own sweet spot wherever you are. Whether it’s in zen meditation, staring out the window of a car, waxing a car, playing guitar or taking 30 second videos… enjoy the process however you plan or live it out and don’t feel judged – it’s your own private paradise after all.

9/14/13

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the art of a flexible life plan

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This month’s existential chapter began with many open ended questions to examine. Questions that most of us have thought about from time to time and questions that a few of us have obsessed over and struggled with for years.

“What is the purpose of existence? Where did we come from? Where are we going? and why?

Honestly, I have to agree with Brad Warner (author of “Hardcore Zen” suggested reading from this month’s chapter writer) He says,

“Purpose deals with goals, direction, and stuff that is going to happen in the future.” And “Wherever we came from is over and done. – I want to know what this is – this place right here, this state of mind right now. What is this?” And he ends the prologue of his book with the most important question, in my opinion,

“Who are you really? And what really is that thing that you so confidently call your life?”

Well, after practicing meditation for only a week I have not come closer to any clear answers for those questions yet, but I can say that the act of living out these chapters thus far has helped me understand a lot more about who I really am and who I am becoming each new moment.

—-

It seems like we all spend a lot of time worrying about the future “what is going to happen to me? Where will I end up? What will I be doing? Will I do something meaningful in this world? All this anxiety created solely by our egos, making us believe that the answers to those questions matter more than what it is we are doing and being now and who we are right now. Our egos have also helped us believe that not knowing the answers to these questions is a bad thing. We grow up with parents feeding our egos and being told that we need to know what we want to be, what we want to do and how we are going to do it. I was never clued in that I would have to continue wrestling with these questions after I have “grown up” and ultimately until I die. I somehow thought there was some magic age where I would have figured it out.

Although I have been asked several times, I actually have never ever made a 5, 10, year, or even 1 year life plan. Those who know me, know that I have problems even planning a week ahead of time these days. It somehow seems that the older I get the less attracted I am to planning out or planning for my future. I thought about it quite a bit in my twenties but my concern about doing this has dropped off in the past five years. Some people who organize their goals and timeline differently than I, have been perplexed/frustrated with the way in which I navigate my decisions. I am aware that this request to plan is given with the best of intentions. It could only bring shape, clarity or direction to my path and may help me reach ambitious plateaus that I couldn’t even dream of reaching. However when asked to do this I often feel constricted and question if an ambitious plateau or a sense of direction is what I really want to strive for. I feel that I have done really well fluttering about buzzing from one thing to the next pollinating each new experience and place with something new.  I have enjoyed watching my life unfold in unexpected ways.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of planning. I use to be a teacher. And there is no way that I would ever stand in front of a room of 25 plus kids without a plan of how to engage my students’ attention while teaching them a new skill or idea in a short 45 minute session. But teaching also taught me this: you just never know what life (or small children) might throw at you AND you can’t assume that even your best laid plan will work with each new student, scenario, or day that comes. Teaching (along with extensive travel) has really helped me adjust my thinking and adopt the mentality of walking into the unknown with a welcoming attitude.

I realized that when I resisted the flow of the changing moods of my students or direction of the day, I would miss out on opportunities, learning, alertness, and awareness that always came with the challenge of adapting to the present situation.

I also understand that I may be a bit different from most. Many people accomplish great tasks and goals by mapping out intricate and detailed plans. This makes so much sense when you are trying to accomplish intricate, specific and detailed goals. Maybe its hard to believe but I feel very clear on what  my goals are, they just are not specific or attached to things like jobs, possessions, or particular people.  Maybe that’s is why its been so difficult to find a direct and simple path to them.  If I had to some up my goals, I would have to say that I have been working toward keeping a mindset of happiness. (Aren’t we all doing this?) What helps me keep that state of happiness seems to change from year to year but when thinking about it I came up with these life goals to help me do this.

1. I want to continue to create and nourish positive relationships with others

2. I want to continue doing work that is meaningful and/or useful for myself and others

3. I want to continue to learn, create and explore new things in ways that make me feel alive.

4. I want to continue to be adaptable to my changing surroundings and open to new opportunities that come my way

I created the Living Chapters project with these goals in mind. So if you think about it, Living Chapters itself is a bit of a 1-year life plan. It has timeline, goals, structure, and accountability built-in.

The main difference is this: I created Living Chapters because I wanted to see what would happen if I stopped worrying about future planning for a year and just focused on the living, reacting, and reflecting upon my current situation. I also wanted to see what would happen if I let go of my need to control, curate each next step. Could I become more open to new opportunities and experiences? More comfortable with not knowing what was coming (the unknown in general) and comfortable with letting go of complete control over my life? It’s an illusion that we have any form of control anyway.

So I planned Living Chapters instead of a making a life plan and decided that if I wanted to know more about who I am and what I wanted that I needed to fully explore and determine what I care about, what I believe, and what my unique talents and qualities are before making any plans. (this is what I hope Living Chapters will bring)

Instead of figuring out a direct plan for my future, what I want to do is hone the skills that will help me to arrive at it organically. I need to figure out how to stop doubting my inner guidance and innate skills and become more comfortable trusting, even if it means moving forward into unknown territories or into things that are out of my control.

With all that said and my resistance to planning, This is my first stab at giving Amy’s “life plan” challenge a go.  I may come back to this in greater detail later in the month, we’ll see where the month takes me.

1 year from now: Assessment/Reflection

Next fall in September 2014, a few months after Living Chapters project is completed I will assess and reflect upon the experiences that this yearlong experiment has given me before making any more life decisions. Looking at how or if the process has affected my path, I will document those reflections through some chosen creative process. At this point I will decide whether it be public or private but the key is the act of reflection and sharing it with at least those I care about.

5 years from now: Consistency within Change

When I was 12 or 13 I wrote somewhere in a journal that “the only consistent thing in my life was change” I could not have been more right and through some self-fulfilling prophecy it still rings true at age 36. I don’t think this is a bad thing though and I don’t think I lack all consistency in my life today but by the time I reach 41 I would like to introduce elements of consistency into my life. I would like to be consistent with my actions, and my way of being. Can I stay consistently involved with my community? Can I consistently stay active and healthy? Can I consistently be working my creative mind? In five years I will develop a structure for implementing consistency.

10 years from now: Exit Ambition – Move to Meaning

In ten years from now, I would love to be free of egocentric ambition and move to more meaningful personal pursuits, while becoming a bit less serious. (is this possible?) I have been working on this goal for a couple of years now but feel it will take at least a good 10 more years to even make a dent in this process. It takes a while to de-program all that ambition/ego drive that lives within us!

I am not sure how Zen all this planning has been but it sure sounds ambitious doesn’t it?  For now, back to meditation.

9/11/13

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Goals/Creations/Decisions

 Chapter 4; Week 2

There is nothing wrong with striving to improve your life situation. You can improve your life situation, but you cannot improve your life. Life is primary. Life is your deepest inner Being. It is already whole, complete, perfect. Your life situation consists of your circumstances and your experiences. There is nothing wrong with setting goals and striving to achieve things. The mistake lies in using it as a substitute for the feeling of life, for Being. The only point of access for that is the Now. You are then like an architect who pays no attention to the foundation of a building but spends a lot of time working on the superstructure.

– Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

When I first started meditating in 2007, I was pretty “blissed out” and grounded by the practice and Zen Buddhism in general. With a job I was thoroughly passionate about, it helped me to be intentional, brave, and present at work. It felt great, until I needed to begin crafting the next stage of my life. It was time to make decisions:  Should I leave Mississippi now? Where should I move? Should I go back to school? What kind of work do I want to do? What are my most potent passions? Instead of pausing everything to get back in touch with my desires, I tried to live peacefully and got by making decisions based on a blurry intuition that was once knife sharp. I tried to apply the lessons I learned in Zen philosophy and that stuck feeling… stuck around. I stopped meditating based on a hunch that Buddhism in general and meditation had turned me into a passive person- the idea of which I detested. Five years and two US cities later, I’m just now snapping out of this funk, answering these questions, and trying to understand why an ambitious and goal oriented person like myself was even in this funk for so long.

I don’t blame Buddhism, but I do blame myself for attempting to integrate its teachings into all aspects of my life. By doing so, I believe that I neglected to actively tend to my life situation. While I do believe that everything happened just as it should, I’m still intrigued by the difference between what ET (I like this nickname) calls “our life situation” and “Life”. Existentialism asserts that we must take responsibility for ourselves, continue creating our lives each day –  which suggests that spending time focusing on our life situation is also incredibly important.

Over the next two weeks I invite you to pay attention to the effects of meditation on your life situation while also spending time off the cushion identifying and working on your personal goals and ambitions.

Assignment #1:

  • Continue meditation morning and night (this will continue until the end of the month). I have urged Beth to follow traditional zazen form/instruction at least half of the time she sits so she has the opportunity to inherit the tried and true wisdom alive in that practice. The other half of the time, we agreed that she may do more of a free form meditation that she creates on her own. (Be aware that traditional meditators would tell you that your made up routine is not meditation at all. It’s just your own crunchy, earth mother spirit, dream catcher floor routine.)

Assignment #2:

  • Begin identifying your personal short-term goals (1 year), mid term goals (5 years), and lifetime goals. Consider any/all aspects of life that are most important to you right now: work, relationships, income, place, health, etc. Let yourself think big. A good way to stimulate this thought process is to finish the sentence: “If I were to die in a year, 5 years, 10 years…”
  • If you are unclear what your goals are and you are out of touch with your desires, pay attention to your needs, your slightest preferences in every circumstance- no matter how slight. For example, “You know what, I do have a preference for what we eat for dinner, I’m really not in the mood for sushi…” Begin acting on these slight desires and preferences and slowly you will become more aware of your larger preferences.
  • When you define your goals your fears will surface immediately. Fear is an inevitable during times of change and while trying something new. Try to get comfortable with the fear, make friends with it a bit- sort of like your list of reoccurring issues from last week. Try envisioning yourself not overcoming your fears, but working towards your goal while feeling the fear. Envision what that would look like and feel like.
  • If you are inspired to begin taking steps on a personal goal, take some steps and get started.

9/8/2013

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zentember

Oh how I welcome September’s new challenges. As I transition into the theme of this next chapter, I will try to hold on to the acute mindfulness that I gained in the chapter three but bring it inward. The external environmental questions have naturally led me closer to the examination of internal questions that are laid out before me this month. I also feel that I will pull much from what I learned in chapter one’s Body/Kinesthetic challenge to help me achieve this month’s goals.

Being asked to turn inward for answers, peace and calm comes at a good time as I find myself transitioning again, not only into a new season, but into a new home. I bid goodbye to “Meridan Summer” (the sail boat I was living on) at the end of August and have just moved aboard and welcomed “Morning Star” to begin my existential chapter. I am hoping that this change of shelter will assist me as I try to shift into a new state of mind.

Changing environments can be rejuvenating, but I do still find uprooting myself to be a stressful experience. However, the timing of this move may quite possibly be the perfect time to be entering into a meditation practice. It can’t possibly hurt to bring stillness, focus, and quiet to my life during a time that often brings chaos, disorder and questions.

Unlike Amy, I have not read much on meditation or traditional Buddhist philosophies. I also have very little book knowledge or experience with the act of meditation itself. What I do know I  learned through doing yoga in which I practiced the art of focusing directly on controlling my breath and my physical body through different poses. I learned how controlled breath works to both calm my mind and enliven the muscles in my body. Yoga practice has helped me slow down and become more intentional and aware of both mind and body. When I first came to yoga, I started with the intention of wanting some kind of result from it. I wanted a form of physical exercise that would bring benefits to my body/mind and wanted a structure or practice that could help ground me when feeling particularly overwhelmed or stressed. I did not start yoga with a desire to develop spiritually or philosophically. However in the 9 years of experimenting with different forms of yoga, I have become more and more curious and open to learning about how to expand and grow spiritually.  Body, mind, our actions and the act of being with ourselves and with others? How does this all connect?

I do feel lucky that yoga has given me a bit of experience with the posture and the breathing needed to learn and practice meditation,  but what I really would like to learn more about at this point is “the attitude of mind”. When reading Amy’s suggested guidelines from the “American Zen Association”, this excerpt really resonated with me.

“Mushotoku is the attitude of non-profit, of not wanting to gain anything for yourself. It is essential to true Zen practice. Giving without expecting to receive, abandoning everything without fear of losing, observing oneself.”

“Abandoning everything without fear of losing, observing oneself”  WOW … how freeing would that be if I could truly adopt and practice that. “If you abandon all you will obtain all” hmmmm…. Definitely thoughts to mediate on in the next month.

It’s a long journey to reach these goals I am sure, but as always I need to start somewhere. So here I am. I will start by instituting 30 seconds of stillness breaks throughout each day in September with the goal of stretching these mid day breaks from 30 seconds to 30 minutes of stillness throughout the month. I will also begin a new mediation practice of 20 minutes before bed and 20 minutes after waking of traditional Zen meditation.

Sharing my first attempt at this mediation practice somehow feels even more personal and revealing than sharing my shower habits last month but here goes, we can’t learn anything if we don’t share anything right?  I am open to hearing your experiences, comments and suggestions so please chime in if you have helpful thoughts that may guide me forward.

Below are my steps in my self guided mediation practice: (note these are my personal instructions to myself not suggestions for how others should practice)

1. Deal with all external factors first that may distract me: Sound, temperature, bathroom break, spatial issues etc

2. Sit comfortably in folded leg position with hands palm face up open on knees, holding my posture as straight as I can – sometimes I sit on a few folded towels and let my knees fall forward to the ground.

3. Set my meditation timer and start it.

4. Find a spot in front of me to fix my eyes upon (not looking directly at something but rather resting my eyes lightly on something) I keep my eyes open for my morning mediation and am practicing with my eyes shut for evening mediation.

5. Start breathing in and out through my nose using a 3-part breath filling my belly, my chest and my esophagus and then releasing the breath in the same order. (Its audible and slow, taking maybe 4 full seconds to come in and 4 to fully go out)

6. Focus my breathing and connect it to a visual element. (for example: I imagine white light coming into my body with the inhale and then imagine the light leaving and radiating around the body with the exhale – sometimes I imagine floating on the ocean and the tide coming in with the inhale and the tide going out with the exhale – this one especially works for me when meditating on the boat!)

7. Set an intention. My intention is simply gaining a greater awareness of either my mind, body, or attitude. I will accept what does or does not happen. As I am just starting this practice, I am not really sure what mediation is or should be. I just will accept whatever happens in this 20 minutes of stillness and try to learn from it.

8. When the time is up. I take written notes on the process, how it changes from day-to-day and make lists of what I am calling the “mmm” thoughts (monkey mind moments – re-occurring thoughts that hang around bothering me, jumping from one thing to the next)

My initial assumption of meditation was that it would be a time to simply empty out the thoughts that fill my head on a daily basis – a time of peace and solitude. But in these initial stages, I realize that it’s a place that all thoughts will arise to the surface and live (positive or negative).  And now I feel that its ok to let them. I am grateful that Amy built writing the thoughts down into the week’s challenge. It is helping me to become aware of the issues and things in my life that are causing me anxiety or using my energy. Looking at them on paper has helped me separate myself from them and look at them for what they are. Just thoughts. As I said, I am not sure yet what this practice is or will bring but for now I will fall back on what the American Zen Association says,

“Zen students develop wisdom if they are vigilant in their Zen practice, in their effort to know themselves, to go beyond themselves, to give of themselves without expecting any personal gain. If you abandon all, you will obtain all.”

9/6/13

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30 seconds of stillness

Before responding in writing to September’s thought-provoking questions, I would like to take a moment to pause — and transition slowly into this new chapter.

I admit I have a problem slowing down, not only physically but also mentally.  When I am not multitasking I am thinking about a million things and planning others. I often need to remind myself to be present, here and now in the moment.

In an effort to slow my movements and my mind in preparation for my new meditation practice, I am instituting “30 seconds of stillness” breaks throughout the day. Here is the first, of what I hope to become daily, documentation.

9/4/13

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time/awareness

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Chapter 4; Week 1

The awareness that time is constantly passing, we are getting older each day, and that we could die at any moment- puts an incredible amount of pressure on us to live fully every day and spend our time on this earth wisely and intentionally. The imminence of death gives significance to living. We can get caught up in the urgency to perfect ourselves, focusing on closing the gap between where we are and where we wish to be, who we are and who we wish we could be.

Perhaps the foremost experts on acceptance and patience, Buddhists have spent centuries using meditation as a tool to experience each moment with greater depth, increased awareness, and of course, to attain enlightenment (let’s just forget about this last one). The act of pausing to meditate is powerful alone and requires a reorientation towards leading a more disciplined life.

Assignment #1:  Beth and I will meditate for 15-20 minutes in the morning and at night for the whole month of September. See if you can start with 15 minutes and by the end of the month, work your way up to 20 minutes.

We will practice meditation in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. I’ve chosen this tradition because it is incredibly minimal and simple. Beth is welcome to identify and practice another form of meditation if another tradition appeals to her more.

Some simple instruction for Zen meditation (called “zazen”) is available here, courtesy of the American Zen Association. Amy will be on-call to answer questions about meditation basics and to provide peer support as they both try to follow this new rigorous routine. (Amy has practiced zazen before but has not kept with her practice.)

What you will need:

  • A piece of floor space approximately 2.5’ by 2.5’ wide, preferably facing a flat wall or door.
  • A quiet room if possible, but work with what you’ve got!
  • Loose fitting pants/comfortable clothes.
  • A makeshift meditation cushion. For a few years I used folded sheets and towels in a stack about 6 inches tall. Your instructions will help you assemble it to the proper height.
  • A silent timer. The iphone timer function is great. Set the alarm sound to something tranquil so the bejesus is not scared out of you when you are through.

It is incredibly important to be very disciplined with this routine. There will be nights when you are “too tired,” are in a weird location, or have already passed out on a couch and woken up groggy-eyed at 2:00 am thinking, “There’s NO way I’m meditating now before I crawl into bed.”  It’s really important to get over that hump and just do it.

More involved readings for beginners are available. Beth and Amy will discuss a book for her to read throughout the month to help hone her practice. Two suggestions include:

  • Zen Meditation:  Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner
  • Vipassana Meditation:  Mindfulness in Plain English by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana

True Zen consists of sitting quietly in the correct posture. It is not a special state, it is the normal state: silent, peaceful, without agitation. Zen means to put the mind at rest and to concentrate the mind and body. In zazen there is no purpose, no seeking to gain something, no special effort or imagination. It is not knowledge to be grasped by the brain. It is solely a practice, a practice which is the true gate to happiness, peace and freedom.                                                                               –Taisen Deshimaru Roshi.

Recommendation #2:  Simply make a list of the reoccurring issues that are involuntarily occupying your thoughts this week. These could be exciting things, sources of anxiety, work or financial stresses, relationship challenges, etc. You don’t have to share the list with anyone; you don’t have to work on eliminating or resolving these issues- just write them down!

Just finding this blog today? Read more about the Living Chapters project here.