Self Health

IMG_0382I walked past the nondescript storefront in my neighborhood for two months before I opened the door one Monday night and went in.  I’d been to my first celebration of International Women’s Day and seen a demonstration of what the class I’d be attending would be about, knowing it would be scary and possibly life-changing.  I walked in, and didn’t leave until six years later. I had found a home, a community, a way to look at myself, other women, and the world; this led directly to the career I would later pursue as a psychotherapist.

At the San Francisco Women’s Health Center, we taught self-health.  We began with the introductory class on cervical self-exam, using plastic specula, flashlights and mirrors to see the most private parts of our bodies.  We did this in groups to break down the isolation and self-criticism that plagued many of us.  After each woman put in her speculum and looked at herself—a surprisingly thrilling experience—others looked too.FullSizeRender

We taught class series which included breast self-exam, and we did bi-manual exams on each other to feel the uterus and ovaries.  We talked about the social context of medical care, inspiring women to enter medical school at a time when it was mostly men; looked at the role of pharmaceutical companies before the term Big Pharma; and pressed for patients’ rights to information, support, and options.  We had a menopause program at a time when talking about it was taboo, and had a program for pregnant women too.

Most of our work was volunteer.  I learned bookkeeping, taught classes, wrote and produced pamphlets, spoke at medical conferences, and participated (silently for the first two years!) in our weekly meetings in which we collectively ran the center. I brought the excitement for personal growth to my new career as a therapist, and have used many of those skills in my private practice and in co-founding and helping organize Dharma Zephyr Insight Meditation Community. 

PS As I was already mentally writing this post, I learned that this is National Women’s Health Week—so I’m happy to celebrate it by invoking this very moving and significant part of our history.

 

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We Get Around

P1000693Before I went to Cuba I had an image that most of its vehicles were vintage American cars.  Wrong!  There were vehicles of all kinds, including generic small Asian sedans. Most of the transportation was local; the “highways” between cities were sparsely used.  Cubans traveled in converted trucks of various kinds.  As tourists on a land and sea trip, we traveled first class, and of course had a ride in a Fifties convertible.

Havana traffic cops in purple

Havana traffic cops in purple

Our Greek cruise ship

Our Greek cruise ship

Our bus

Our bus

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bike with wooden booster seat

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P1000329 (1)

In Cienfuegos

In Cienfuegos, and not just for tourists

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Color

IMG_3284With a wet winter and spring, Nevada has turned green, and the wildflowers are bringing bright splashes of color to the hills.

It led me to reflect on the importance of color; when the day turned gray yesterday I was so happy to look out over my colorful art boards in the back yard, and to the petunias and geraniums in the front planters.

I love the bright colors that I see as I travel around the world.

Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Burma train station

Burma train station

Bathing on the Ganges, Varanasi, India

Bathing on the Ganges, Varanasi, India

Hotel La Quinta Avenida, Havana, Cuba

Hotel La Quinta Avenida, Havana, Cuba

Recently I learned that an American hotel chain has signed a contract to refurbish and manage some of the old hotels in Cuba that are showing their age and lack of upkeep.

While I’m glad that the ratty rugs and dirty staircases will be upgraded, I wonder if the charm of their fearless use of color will be whitewashed away…

 

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Restoration

P1000227After their economy collapsed in the early 1990’s when Soviet support disappeared overnight, Cubans have been slowly rebuilding, both figuratively and literally.

We saw buildings that were disintegrating and some that were being restored, and everything in between.  It’s a powerful metaphor for life itself:  if we don’t put an effort into maintenance and growth, everything eventually falls apart.  P1010324When we lack resources or a sense of ownership or hope, that maintenance is neglected.  It can be a huge source of energy to begin and complete the restoration process.  Cubans hope their rebuilding process can be accelerated with the restoration of US-Cuban relations and new investment. Time will tell.

P1010016One of the more intriguing aspects of this process in Cuba is that on some of the public buildings they leave a section in its original condition, as a window of authenticity, to show that this is truly an old building. It reminds me of the old saying:  Don’t judge a book by its cover. There is so much more to be revealed by continuing to explore.P1000218

 

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Mixed Feelings

P1000137I love to take photos, always have since high school when I worked on the yearbook and got some graphics training.  And yet, I have mixed feelings about it.P1010377

Sometimes I wonder if I’m really seeing what’s there in my quest for good photographs. I fantasize about traveling without a camera, but that will probably never happen.  For one thing, I tend to have a poor memory, so having a photo record helps me remember.  And I do find that people appreciate my photos; wanting to use them was a primary inspiration for this blog.P1000364

P1010327I like to take photos of many things, and in the coming weeks I’ll probably share some I took in Cuba last month.  Today I’ll show you some people.  I often ask permission before I shoot, but it is also fun to get candid snaps.  

P1000373The last photo is one of two women who did not want their picture  taken.  I was actually photographing the building they were in front of, not noticing them until after I snapped it.  Later I cropped the photo to put them front and center.  It’s a good reminder to be more sensitive as I take pictures in public space.P1010304

 

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Fidel, Barack, Mick, and Me

This was my guest column yesterday in the Nevada Appeal:

P1000477“You’ll leave Cuba with more questions than you had when you arrived.”  This was the first thing our Cuban guide Felix said to our tour group after meeting us at Holguin Airport on March 15. He was right.  A big reason for that was provided a week later in Havana by our second guide, Viviana.  When we asked our first question, she furrowed her brow, paused for a moment, then responded, “It’s complicated,” for the first of many times.

I was in Cuba for a two-week guided tour that traveled by bus and ship, visiting seven communities. Until 2014, it was illegal for most Americans to travel there, unlike citizens of any other country who’ve always gone there freely. For now, U. S. citizens need to have a specific purpose for their visit, and most do a People-to-People trip designed to introduce us to Cubans in as many situations as can be crammed into each day. 

We visited a cigar factory; rode in old American convertibles; heard music (and sometimes danced) almost everywhere; saw gorgeous modern art in the national museum, community projects, and galleries in every city; ate delicious meals in privately owned restaurants; watched a world-class dance performance; played dominos; and visited a neighborhood medical clinic.  We visited the sanctuary of their national saint—religious practice is no longer outlawed and Pope Francis played a role in the current thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations.P1000931

We learned about the national literacy campaign of the early days of the revolution when people who could read, like Viviana’s father, went out to the countryside to teach reading to all.  Cuba has an almost 100% literacy rate, with free education through all levels and high teacher-to-student ratios. It’s ironic that there is little to read due to government censorship and no money for books. Salaries are low ($25.00/month on average), so many educated people choose or are ordered to work in tourism, where they earn tips. The Cuban people are innovative, and most find additional sources of revenue to supplement their government jobs.

Health care is free and available in neighborhood clinics and local hospitals. Cuba has a much higher ratio of doctors and dentists to the population than the U.S., their infant mortality rate is lower, and they have excellent medical schools that train doctors from around the world.  They are leaders of bio-medical research, but often cannot obtain needed medicines due to the U.S.-enforced embargo against trade, which restricts the flow of goods from any country conducting business in the American dollar. Every country in the United Nations except the U.S. and Israel favors lifting the embargo.

The overwhelming message I heard from the other 19 people in our group is how much they liked and admired the Cuban people. They show “the triumph of the human spirit” as they live creative, decent lives despite the kind of poverty seen in many developing countries, and a repressive government. P1000567

As for Barack and Mick: our president, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Rolling Stones were in Havana when we were. While we never saw them except on Cuban television, we felt their presence and the excitement of the people celebrating Cuban-American friendship and the possible long-hoped-for lifting of the embargo.

There was one thing that wasn’t complicated, the message of the Cuban people:  Please, we want to be friends. This March, they gained 20 new ones; no question about it.

 

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On Vacation

083Dear Friends,

I am on vacation in Cuba and the Florida Keys.  The Cuba trip is with Road Scholar and People to People.  We’ll be meeting all kinds of folks in all kinds of places.  We will be in Havana when President Obama makes his historic visit, and a few days later when the Rolling Stones give a free outdoor concert!

I’ll be back posting by April 7 at the latest.

Have a good few weeks!

with best wishes, Kathy

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Imperfect Human

Dalai Lama 8“Why are we so hard on ourselves?” a friend plaintively asked me.  She told me she had made a scheduling error, and felt bad that she had let someone down.

Then she brightened and said that she had been able to forgive herself when she remembered something that I had told her helps me:

I know that I’m a human being, that human beings are imperfect, and that therefore I’m imperfect.”  That was an easy math equation (a=b, b=c, so a=c), but it did not seem to quiet my inner critic, who said “yeah, whatever, you shouldn’t have done X; you screwed up and are a miserable human being.” (I know, not much fun to live with!)

I came up with one more part:  “this is the particular way that I’m imperfect (right now, sometimes, was last night, etc.).”  Fortunately, there’s a logic in that statement that quiets the critic and I can let go.

“Yes,” she said, “I made a mistake, I’ve made amends, and now I’m OK.” And with that, she went on to enjoy the next part of her day, free from self-recrimination, fully available to the present moment.

Photo:  His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Portland, 2013, who freely admits to his own imperfection

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Perfections of the Heart

imageAt a recent retreat, Kamala Masters, our teacher, would ask us after a meditation period to report on what we were experiencing.  What were we aware of, and even more important, what was the attitude in the mind towards our experience?

Meditation can be difficult.  As they say in AA, our minds can be like a dangerous neighborhood that we do not want to enter alone.  We can actually feel tormented, especially at the beginning when we are just getting to know our minds and how to work skillfully with them.

One woman reported that she felt almost tortured by her thoughts.  She found herself wanting to leave, yet she stayed, and even came back for a second day, when these kinds of thoughts persisted.  But she also reported that she discovered a kind of strength she never knew she had; it seemed clear she would continue to practice.

Kamala responded by telling her that she was developing many of the paramis, perfections of the heart, qualities of enlightened beings. She mentioned some, and in looking through the list, I can see them all manifesting.  There was renunciation, a turning away from ordinary pleasures we use to self-soothe; patience; energy; determination; truthfulness (what courage to make that report!); wisdom; generosity in her willingness to share with the group; morality; lovingkindness to herself; and in the end, a kind of equanimity.  

How wonderful to notice that even when we struggle with difficult states, other positive qualities are being nurtured if we bring an attitude of curiosity and willingness to our practice.

Photo:  Kamala Masters in 2003, when I first met her

 

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Excitement

 

IMG_2401When I was twelve, my father took us to an amusement park and I went on a large roller coaster for the first time.  I opened my mouth wide and screamed from the first descent to the very end of the ride.  I was terrified and it wasn’t fun.  Fifty years later, I went on my second roller coaster, one that was for children, and I found it almost as scary, and still no fun.

On the other hand, I love ferris wheels.  The loading and unloading process, the gentle rotation, the view from the top—it’s all fun for me.IMG_2403

What makes the difference?  On the ferris wheel, I can feel some fear, but I can breathe; on the roller coaster, I’m either screaming or totally frozen.

Fritz Perls, the psychologist who developed Gestalt therapy, famously said, “anxiety is excitement without breathing.”  We could also say, “it’s exciting when there’s a little fear, but not so much that I can’t catch my breath.”

IMG_2404I’ve been on enough ferris wheels since I learned that quote that it’s become easy to stay within my breath the whole ride.  I find it a useful lesson to remember when I find myself freezing in a new situation—can I find my breath? If I freeze, can I find it again?  In…out…

Photos:  a funicular in India

 

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Spinning Plates

syracuse_suzanneSometimes we are so caught up in worrying about a number of subjects that it can feel like our head is spinning.  Today a friend said he felt like each issue that was bothering him was like a leaf in a whirlwind of leaves, impossible to grab hold of as it whirled and whirled.

It reminded me of another analogy I use for the same experience.  We can feel like one of those acrobats who put plate after plate up on poles, racing from one to the next to give another spin to keep them up in the air.  As the plates spin, nothing changes; there is no new content.  We go faster and faster, twirling the poles until we’re exhausted; then the plates fall and shatter—unless we take them down one by one.

In this instance, to take a plate down would be to write about the concern, putting as many thoughts about it as we can on paper (or in a computer document).  Once the thoughts are articulated clearly, we may more easily see what action needs to be taken: research, communication with someone else, scheduling it for a later time, biting the bullet and making a decision, and so on.  

Then, when we notice we’re spinning again (probably by feeling the energy as much as noticing the thoughts), we can first bow to and thank that worry part of ourselves, calmly think about if there is anything new to write down, and see if we need to make a new plan.  Often, though, we can simply interrupt the spinning with a gentle “not, now, honey, unless you have something new to add,” and return to what’s right in front of us.

Photo:  my mother’s china recently came to live with me.  It’s called Suzanne.

 

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Sleep?

Burmese SleeperIf you asked me what I did best when I was younger, I would have said sleep.  I could sleep wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, for how long I wanted, and never need an alarm, even for a twenty minute nap.

Sadly, those days are gone. It’s not uncommon for my sleep to be disrupted, often for no reason I can discern  I know I am not alone in this!  If you are like me, you have counted (forwards and back, in English or another language), drunk warm milk, tried different meds, both OTC and prescription, breathed into relaxation, and so on.  Sometimes these techniques work, sometimes not.

Once I was lying awake, remembering that I’ve read that resting (at least when I don’t have the heebie-jeebies) is almost as good as sleep.  I realized the worst thing that would happen would be I’d be tired the next day.  Then I noticed how quiet it was, how warm I felt in my cozy bed, that I’d had dinner and would be eating breakfast, and was filled with gratitude; then I promptly fell asleep.  But, I can tell you from experience, neither gratitude nor any other technique can be counted on to produce sleep.  Like most things, sleep is not under my conscious control.

Can I accept this? Or do I struggle with the truth of how things are? 

Photo:  This man appears to be sound asleep with his head next to the rock against which his friend is pounding gold into gold leaf to be pressed onto Buddhas as an offering. Mandalay, Burma, 1987

 

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Before, During, After

scarves beforeTrue confession:  I’ve become a fan of The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, a way to think about, honor, let go of, and/or enjoy the things in my house. Marie Kondo, the author, suggests we hold each object we own and only keep those that spark joy and for which we can find a storage place, going through the house by category (or sub-category) rather than by room.  We begin with clothing, and are to fold clothes and stack them on end rather than in piles.scarves during

She is Japanese, and from the Shinto tradition which holds that objects have feelings and fulfill a purpose, often one that is different from what we might first expect. What I find most astonishing about the process is that it is not so much about de-cluttering, which is how I have always approached letting go of stuff, but rather a way of honoring my things. By keeping only that which I truly like and storing it mindfully, I get a glimpse of how the house will look when I have finished tidying (in many months, I am sure). And I release everything else to fulfill its purpose elsewhere.

scarves afterThis is certainly not for everyone.  I have a friend who said that if she read the book she believes she’d have to create even more clutter.  I just read about a study that shows that creative people are more creative when there is clutter to spark ideas (even if it does not spark joy!). And it looks like Calico would have loved for me to leave the pile of scarves on the bed!

 

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Unbidden

Bali thru Heather 344Sometimes it can feel difficult to accept a gift.  I have a friend who told me he had the impulse to return a gift that seemed too generous, but he knew immediately that that was not an impulse to be indulged. Instead he wrote a (probably gracious) thank-you note.

For many years, like many people, I found it hard to accept the gift of a compliment.  I would make a self-deprecating remark or explain why the compliment was misguided.  I finally stopped when a friend said to me, “when you reject my compliment, you are either saying I have bad taste or am a liar.  That’s not OK with me.”  I got the point, and learned to say “thank you,” even if it took me time to truly take it in.

Recently another friend and I were talking about being the recipient of generosity.  She said, “I can never be thankful enough for what flows to me unbidden.”  What a lovely word: unbidden.

I began thinking about all that flows to me unbidden as well. I vow to receive the generosity of all that comes to me with gratitude and an open heart.

TNH New-Year-2016

PS  Thich Nhat Hanh (age 79) returned to Plum Village on January 1.

 

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Non-Toothache

 

imageAs I look at the tag cloud at the side of the blog front page, I am amazed to see that the largest tag is Thich Nhat Hanh.  It’s been 20 years since I studied with him, both in the US and at his retreat center Plum Village in France, yet I still remember so much of what I learned from him.

He was the first person I knew who emphasized the importance of gratitude.  He used to say, “when you have a toothache, you say ‘I would be so grateful  if my tooth didn’t ache.’ But when it is gone, will you remember to say ‘I am so grateful for my non-toothache’?”image

Today I am grateful for my non-toothache, and so much more, including all the teachings I received from Thay (his nickname, meaning teacher).  He is in rehab in San Francisco after suffering a stroke last year.  Please hold him in your hearts.  

(PS Thay returned to Plum Village on January 8, 2016.)

Photos:  taken on “dental row” in Kathmandu, Nepal

 

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Tie Your Camels

Camel 3 by BruceOne of my favorite sayings comes out of the middle east:  Trust in God, but tie your camels to the post.  (The Buddhist version might be to trust in the dharma, in life itself.) It reminds us not to be fear driven, but that we bear responsibility to do the worldly tasks like paying our bills, studying for an exam, showing up on time for work, and keeping our word.

Sometimes very difficult things can come up, and we can get very scared.  Recently I was talking to someone who has been diagnosed with a very serious, chronic and incurable medical condition.  Understandably, she finds it scary. Some of her friends, in an attempt to comfort her, tell her not to to be afraid, and to stay positive.  How could that even be possible?  Fear is going to arise.  And the truth is, she needs to plan for possible eventualities in case her situation worsens.  What to do?Camel 1 by Bruce

I say that when her fear arises, to feel it fully, remembering that it will be like a wave and pass; she does not need to suppress it in an attempt to “be positive.”  And when it passes, think about what camels in her life need tying and do that. Then when the fear inevitably arises again, she can also comfort herself that she is not in denial; she is doing what she can to responsibly care for herself and plan for her family.

Camel 2 by BruceSo, remember to cultivate trust and letting go, but don’t forget to tie those camels!

(These camels, Phoenix and Sage, were on their way from a refuge in California to a school for special needs kids and spent the night in Washoe Valley in my friend Susan’s back yard. Photos by Bruce Czopak [BruceCzopak.wordpress.com].)

 

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Space Free

 

Red billed tropicbird--Galapagos Islands

Red billed tropicbird–Galapagos Islands

The last stanza in our gatha (practice poem) is:

“Breathing in, I see myself as space; breathing out, I feel free.” Shortened it becomes “space, free.”

With this verse Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that we need space, to not be crowded by opinions, objects, expectations, possessions, memories, plans (whew!).  Recently I gave a bouquet of Peruvian lilies (astromeria) to a friend.  I bought 3 bunches to make a full presentation but later realized they looked much prettier with more space around them.  Without space, we cannot see clearly.  

Everything we hold onto takes up room in our psyche and can lead to a dense, crowded feeling.  Letting go creates more room.  When we have less to keep track of we can experience the present more easily.  It’s fitting that this is my last post for this calendar year as we often celebrate the new year by letting go of the old and setting new intentions.

What kind of space will you create for yourself going forward?

 

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Water Reflecting

boat reflectingThe fourth stanza in our gatha (practice poem) is:

“Breathing in, I make myself still, like a pond on a mountain; breathing out, I reflect things as they are.”  The short version is to quietly note “still water” as we breathe in and “reflecting” as we breathe out.

The photo beautifully illustrates the point of this stanza.  Lake Tahoe had wind, so the water was rough, not reflecting the mountains that ring it, but in the protected little inlet the water is calm and the boat perfectly reflected.

When we are agitated by opinions and emotions we cannot see clearly what is actually happening.  Our perceptions are colored by our stories; then our reactivity can push the process along, causing further distortions and difficulties.  

If we can notice our reactivity just like we notice a lake surface made rough by the wind, we can then pause, take a calming, conscious breath and see what is happening from a more neutral stance.  Our response can be wiser.  We won’t necessarily change our opinion, but how we express it may be more skillful, including compassion and empathy.

 

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Mountain Solid

 

MtRose, Nevada

Mt Rose, Nevada

The third stanza in our gatha (practice poem) is:

“Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain; breathing out, I feel solid.”  As with the other images, we can shorten this to “mountain” as we breathe in, and “solid” as we breathe out.

This image invites us to find our stability, a kind of strength that can support us when we feel wobbly.  When I first learned it, the beautiful mountains of the Sierra Nevada, just west of my home, came to mind.  Years later I was fortunate to visit sacred Mt. Kailash in Western Tibet which became another inspiration. But even a modest hill or a photo can remind us of this practice.

We can practice this while seated in meditation, feeling our bottoms as the base and our torso and head rising into the skies.  In yoga, the basic standing pose is called mountain; there we feel our feet planted on the ground and the energy of our body rising.  

I often invoke this feeling while sitting with clients who are telling me of a difficult circumstance; feeling grounded and stable allows me to meet them with presence instead of reactivity. In other circumstances when strong emotion arises I spread my energy through my body to help me contain it.

Mt Kailash, Tibet

Mt Kailash, Tibet

 

And the standing pose is great for waiting in grocery store lines! If I notice I am slumped to one side and feeling impatient, I can feel the energy almost drain from my body. Sometimes that uncomfortable feeling reminds me to find mountain pose, which then leads me to bring full attention to the people I’m waiting with or who are about to serve me. I love it when everyday life and mindfulness practice come together!

 

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Flower Fresh

IMG_1784The second line in the gatha (practice poem) that we began last week is:

“Breathing in, I see myself as a flower, breathing out, I feel fresh.”

We can use the word “flower” as we breathe in, and “fresh” as we breathe out.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If you look at children, they look very much like flowers.  And all of us were born as flowers, but because we have not taken care of ourselves well, that is why sometimes our flower is tired, we wither a little bit.  And breathing in like that is to refresh our flower, to make it beautiful again.”Ranuncula 3-08

For me this gatha is a good way to think about breathing and awareness as self-nourishment.  I have a tendency to hold my breath or breathe shallowly, even after all the years of training.  When I feel a bit depleted it can be energizing and relaxing at the same time to send my breath into different parts of my torso—up into my shoulders, behind my shoulder blades, expanding my side ribs, feeling my belly expand or my chest rise.  And then I let the breath permeate every cell of my being.

ClematisIf at the same time I imagine a flower blooming, I have a sense of beauty blossoming inside—delicious!  Maybe it would be fun to change “fresh” to “beautiful”…. Try it and let us know your experience in the comments section.

 

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Breathing with Images

IMG_0050 – Version 2Many years ago I learned a five-part gatha (pronounced GAH-tah) from Thich Nhat Hanh.  A gatha is a practice poem that helps us bring mindfulness and intention to our experience.  While I no longer practice it formally, I often find myself using one of the images it suggests.  During this month I’ll be commenting on a verse every week.

Here is the whole gatha:

“Breathing in, I know I am breathing in; breathing out, 

I know that I am breathing out.”

“Breathing in, I see myself as a flower; breathing out, I feel fresh.”

“Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain, breathing out, I feel solid.”

 “Breathing in, I make myself still, like a pond on a mountain; breathing out, I reflect things as they are.”

“Breathing in, I see myself as space; breathing out, I feel free.”

Each verse begins with awareness of breathing, which is a way to ground and embody the images and experiences that are then suggested in the second through fourth verses.  When we practice awareness of breathing, we bring our bodies, minds and hearts together in one place.  We focus on the present moment and let go of our everyday chattering mind. We can whisper to ourselves the shorthand of  “in….out” with each breath. Inevitably our mind wanders off; when we realize this we can notice the quality of awareness that we experience when we come back from the thought train and begin again.  

The tag line of my website is “breathe a little smile…” which reminds us of the ease that can come when we turn up the corners of our lips a bit. But don’t stress or strain with this or feel like you have to pretend to be happy!

I invite you to spend some time reflecting on each verse.  Notice what comes up for you and if there are times when one image might be especially helpful.  Next week I’ll write about “flower…fresh.”

 

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Thank You

 

imageOn the day before Thanksgiving it seems only natural to write about gratitude. I’m grateful for a holiday whose purpose is to help us remember to give thanks.

I have a friend who this year has proven to herself that science and spiritual traditions are correct:  gratitude makes us happy.  She was feeling cranky and out of sorts, then started a practice of posting on Facebook about gratitude every day for 100 days.  Soon after starting, she reported that her mood had shifted.  I notice how much I enjoy reading her posts. I’m happy for her, and it stimulates my own gratitude.

This is a photo of what I’ve come to understand is my altar.  Every object on it has significance for me; some of them are rotated out as other things find their way in.  The thangka is a representation of the cosmos and reminds me of how much bigger our world is than my own tiny (and grand) consciousness.  The beautiful smiling Buddha is a loan from a friend; its hands are in the meditation mudra (gesture).  The Little Prince on the Eiffel Tower tin has a special poignancy now.  There are souvenirs from our family trip to Peru, cards from loved ones, natural objects I’ve picked up or which were given to me, a Bhutanese hat, the Zen bodhisattva vows, and .…

Thank you, everyone, for the gifts you give me and to all beings.  May we all remember to live in gratitude.  As my friend Sparky used to say, “the attitude of gratitude is beatitude.”

 

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The Grief

QuanYinStephen Levine, insight meditation teacher and author of several books, including Who Dies and A Year to Live, has worked with grief for decades.  Like the Buddha, who pointed out that we will inevitably suffer if we are born into a human body, Stephen tells us that grief too is inevitable. And because it is universal, he sometimes refers to it as “The Grief,” a shared experience that goes beyond the personal.

This week our grief for the suffering of the world intensified with the Paris attacks. We have also felt anger, helplessness, fear, and a wish for revenge.  These are all natural human emotions.  But we also know the corrosive effect of giving in to anger and hatred.  We know from personal experience that acting from these emotions only leads to more of the same. Yet how do we deal with the suffering that we see both near and far away?  How can we keep our hearts open?

Perhaps we can be inspired by Quan Yin.QuanYin close

 Pictured in this statue at a Chinese temple in Kushinigar, the town in India where the Buddha died, Quan Yin is the bodhisattva (enlightened being) of compassion. She is said to have a thousand eyes and ears so that she can see and hear the cries of the world. Her great heart holds us with loving energy, asking us not to turn away from suffering.

The vase she holds is symbolic of water, which purifies us and removes suffering. Though hard to see clearly, her right hand is probably in the mudra (gesture) that bestows patience.

May you be held in this boundless compassion and in turn transmit it to all beings everywhere.

 

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Habit? Maybe not!

imageA friend and I were comparing notes recently. Both of us can create a habit for months at a time. Then one day we don’t do it; more months can go by before we even think about it again.image

We both do better when we are accountable to someone or something outside ourselves, so we have started texting each other every morning to commit to our plan for the day. But here’s the rub for me: despite eighteen months of posting this blog weekly (except when technical issues led me to skip a week here or there), I completely forgot about it this week after taking the month off. I didn’t think to put it on my text this morning. I’m so glad it came to mind just in time!

imageLacking ideas for “habit photos,” here are some snow photos. Winter has come early here; perhaps that’s another part of my being out of sync. If it’s not one thing it’s another! Anyway,the most important thing is kindness, so I’m forgiving myself. Now off to bed!image

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The Balanced Acrobat

Buddha hands on heartOne day an acrobat told his assistant to climb onto his shoulders for their balancing act, telling her to watch out for his balance and he would watch out for hers. She replied that she couldn’t possibly control his balance. What she could do was maintain her balance as well as she could. If he went out of balance her inner focus on her own balance would allow him to more easily come back into his own.

This story was told twenty-five hundred years ago by the Buddha, and was as relevant today when I told it to a client as it was back then. What he is telling us is that it is important to pay attention to our own mindfulness and well-being, because it is where we have the most control. Though to some people it may look selfish when we are setting boundaries and practicing good self care, the truth is that if we go out of balance we inevitably have a negative impact on others. If the master is constantly wobbling and tiring himself in his attempt to control something he can’t (his assistant’s balance), his assistant is more like to wobble herself and fall off.

We are inextricably connected in a web of interdependence. When we practice for ourselves, we can then be there for others with caring, compassion and wisdom.

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Senses

Seeing

Seeing

On our retreat this last weekend, we paid particular attention to which sense was being stimulated.

 

 

 

 

 

Hearing

Hearing

Smelling

Smelling

Touching

Touching

Tasting

Tasting

When you spend the day in silence, paying attention, the senses all get heightened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are some photos that represent each of the five senses.  In Buddhist psychology, the mind is considered another sense, but we’ll save that for another day.

 

 

 

 

 

I will be taking a break from the blog for the month of October; I’ll be traveling.  See you all in November!

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Friends

imageThis month friendship is a theme for me.  I spent last weekend with a group of folks I’ve known for almost 30 years.  We consider ourselves to be Family-by-Choice by now, and get together regularly in various combinations.

In two weeks I’ll be joining many friends at a retreat in Wyoming with my long-time teacher and friend John Travis. He will be teaching with Joseph Goldstein, with whom he learned meditation in India decades ago. I know by the end I’ll feel a deep sense of friendship with all the retreatants.  It’s interesting how the experience of being in silence with people leads to such a wonderful sense of closeness and intimacy.

From there I’ll be visiting a rafting buddy I haven’t seen in decades, other friends in Ashland, Oregon for plays, and then on to Portland for more visiting with a long-time friend and a newer one I met on my Tibet pilgrimage.image

And with any luck I’ll be reconnecting with my college roommate over Thanksgiving.

Having moved every 2-3 years growing up, I got used to losing friends regularly.  I’m grateful that I have learned how to re-connect to old friends and stay connected to newer ones.

I wish the boys in the photo as long a friendship as the women have probably enjoyed.  They live days from a road in Bhutan.  The women are looking at a photo taken the year before by my friend and our guide Christy.

 

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Love and Generosity

Nepal Tibet 068When our pilgrimage arrived at the desolate outpost of Darchen, at the foot of sacred Mt. Kailash in western Tibet, we were all tired, hungry and cranky.  We were met by a group of women who were desperate—we were the first group allowed into Tibet by the Chinese in many months, and they needed the income we could provide by buying their trinkets.  But their intensity overwhelmed us and most of us retreated into our rooms without buying anything.

Later some of us walked through the almost deserted village.  We could see how difficult their lives were, but there was little or nothing we could do to help.  I bought one pendant in a shop from one of the most pushy of the women, who was much calmer by then. Sadly, we had no language in common, and couldn’t converse.Nepal Tibet 251

The next morning, as we pulled away from town in our white Land Rovers, the women reappeared and pushed their way against the windows in a last attempt to make a sale.  But we needed to leave, and in any event, my money was packed away in the back of the jeep. 

Meanwhile, the woman who sold me the pendant found me in the car and implored me to buy something.  Feeling helpless, my training in metta (lovingkindness) kicked in and as I looked into her eyes I began chanting “may you be happy, may you find ease, may you be safe, may you feel my love.”  imageThe time seemed endless as we gazed at each other; she then pulled a small bracelet off her wrist and pushed it towards me.  It took me a minute to understand she was giving it to me.  She understood what I was wishing for her, and sent the same wish back to me.  And then we pulled away…

 

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Hugging

imageIn the 1960’s Thich Nhat Hanh came to the US to speak out against the war raging in his country.  One of the people he influenced was Martin Luther King, who did go on to oppose the war.  Dr. King later nominated Thay (pronounced Tie, meaning teacher) for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thay spent some time with Dr. King and his extended community, a warm group of affectionate people who liked to hug each other.  Being a Buddhist monk, Thay was not supposed to touch people, especially women, but kindness is also an important trait to cultivate, so he felt uncomfortable whether he hugged or not.

After the Peace Accords (which he attended) led to the end of the war, Thay went on extended retreat and contemplated what to do about this dilemma. He came up with Hugging Meditation!  There are several versions.  Here is a paraphrase of the one I learned:

Breathing in and out, I hold you in my arms; 

Breathing in and out, I feel you holding me;

Breathing in and out, we are here alive and together.

In the “advanced” form of hugging meditation, we share a fourth breath and remember that all things are impermanent, including both of us.image

While I only rarely practice formal hugging meditation these days, I am usually very conscious of the preciousness of the moment of hugging someone and the importance of bringing my whole presence to that person and feeling them holding me.

Photos: Thay’s senior student Sister Annabel practicing hugging meditation; Thich Nhat Hanh at his retreat center in France, Plum Village, 1989

 

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