Tag Archives: Thich Nhat Hanh

sum·ma·tion

summation2014

 

 

sum·ma·tion (səˈmāSHən ) noun

1. the process of adding things together: the summation of numbers of small pieces of evidence; a sum total of things added together.

2. the process of summing something up: these will need summation in a single document ; a summary; in Law, an attorney’s closing speech at the conclusion of the giving of evidence.

 

 

The end of the year is a time when we tend to take stock, to think about what has happened over the past year, to make peace, to give thanks, to look forward.

As is always true for me, the holidays are a mixed bag. I am reminded of those favor bags from kids’ birthday parties. Sometimes you get something really cool like a paddleball and sometimes you get those wax lips. Anyway, most of the time, you get a mix. It’s near impossible for me to get through the holidays without feeling a pretty large amount of gratitude for all the blessings in my life: not the least of which are dear ones, family, friends. I have a job. I have a roof over my head. I don’t want for food or clothing. I am not consumed by worry about my basic needs being met. I have amazingly creative, smart, caring people in my life.

But the holidays often demand that we be perpetually cheery and grateful, that we shelve our uncertainty. This is not realistic or fair to ourselves. Our uncertainty is always there, and it is pretty friendly with fear and doubt. The holidays also bring with them the end of the year, and for many of us, the end of the year brings an appraisal. It’s as if our lives are our finances and we are working them out in an Excel spreadsheet. Was there enough personal growth? Can we tally a sizable number of accomplishments? How did we fare in love?  How many friends and family are we in touch with and how can we measure their love? It is always easier to remember the heartache and trials. Those arise readily. It seems like there can be a process of looking at the year, judging it and deciding if this year merited itself.

For some of us, this begins, albeit unconsciously, before we enter the holiday fray. We think about what it is we are going to talk about from our year. What aspect of our lives will make sense to our friends and family? How do we make our lives measurable? I find this process exhausting. Because the heart of the heart of my year doesn’t happen in these large moves, defeats or accomplishments but rather in moments of profundity and understanding and grief and joy.

A dear friend of mine told me last night that she is making a “Good Things Jar” for the new year. Next to a large mason jar, she will place scraps of different colored paper, ready and waiting to mark the good things that happen in her life. The small and the big ones. She will fill the jar with these things and next year, on New Year’s Eve, she will read them: remembering her year and all the good that was present in it. I love this idea. I love the ways we can remind ourselves of all that is good. Because we need reminding.

In The Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson writes about how the brain is like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones. We are hardwired that way, because for our ancient ancestors, survival depended upon it. If they didn’t remember what could kill them, they died. The way it plays out for us nowadays is that we ruminate and fixate and mull over negative experiences, not just the ones that are going to kill us but the ones that caused us pain. What once protected us from dying can now prevent us from being fully alive.

There is a term in Buddhism called “mudita.” It means joy. However, it goes beyond that. Mudita is about experiencing genuine joy for others. And while it seems like this comes from a selfless place, it doesn’t. Mudita comes from a place of recognizing our oneness with others. If we are having a hard time but are able to partake in another’s joy, if we can recognize how we are connected to this other person, we can be joyful as well. Still, joy is something we have to come into on our own.

I have known people who will ask how I am and, when I answer honestly about having a challenging day or a hard time, will say things like: “Well, you have so much be grateful for” or “Think about all your blessings” or “Look at how many people are worse off.” And that doesn’t feel honoring. It feels like they are made uncomfortable by my grief or fear and are trying to excise it. Perhaps because my grief or fear reminds them of their own. But we cannot be coaxed into joy. We must find it ourselves.

I think the way that we find it is by being more aware, by making the conscious choice to stay with our joy when we feel it. Good things jars and recalling happy memories with family and literally counting our blessings are all ways to build our own joy, which can become a kind of refuge when fear or uncertainty or envy arise. Mostly though, we need to pay attention when are feeling joyful. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say, we need to water the seeds of joy in ourselves and others. Hanson writes in Buddha’s Brain a few simple steps to take throughout our days to grow our joy:

  1. Help positive events become positive experience: Pay extra attention to the good things in the world and in yourself. For example, notice things that go well, or people who treat you kindly, or when you succeed at something. As we know, it is ignorance, fundamentally, that leads to suffering – and not seeing the good that is actually present is a kind of ignorance.  As a mindfulness practice, focus on the sensations and the feelings in your positive experiences since they are the pathway to emotional memory.  Deliberately create positive experiences for yourself. Examples include acts of generosity, evoking compassion, or recalling a time when you were happy.
  2. Savor the experience as a kind of concentration practice; keep your attention on it for many seconds while letting it fill your body and mind.
  3. Sense that the experience is soaking into you, registering deeply in emotional memory. You could imagine that it’s sinking into your chest and back and brainstem, or imagine a treasure chest in your heart.

 

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Often, we will make a list of new year’s resolutions, most of which point to areas in which we feel inadequate. They point to our own sense of lack. But maybe resolutions don’t need to be about dramatic change in behavior or in circumstance. Perhaps the simplest and best new year’s resolution is to resolve to pay attention. To notice all the opportunities for joy we already have. Then our intentions for the year aren’t built on a belief in our deficiency but on a recognition of our own abundance.

Life is not a score tally for a board game. I find that the greatest pain and suffering for others and myself comes when we try to keep score with our lives. There is no way to add and subtract and compare two different lives. To do so is to pretend that we know the intimacies of someone else’s path. To do so is to pretend we know what is going to happen in our future. We simply have to honor where we are and honor that means we don’t know quite a bit.

I read an old Charlie Brown cartoon today where Charlie tells Lucy: “Life isn’t like a textbook. The answers aren’t at the back of the book.” What if instead of this becoming a source of frustration it became an opportunity for wonder? Look at how much I don’t know! Look at how much I have the opportunity to learn!

I like watching lawyer shows where the attorneys deliver their summations in court. So often they are clear and wrapped up tightly, like the bow on a Christmas present. The decision seems so simple and easy. Life is not like that. We deliver our summation and then a few days or weeks or months later, we deliver it again. At the end of the year, we look and listen and sum our lives and then we do the same thing a year later. But the words are always changing, the verdict is malleable.

As we approach the new year, perhaps we could remember all that we have learned this past year that has prepared us for the new one. Perhaps we could remember that this new year brings not one but countless opportunities to begin again. We can choose to remember in the myriad of experiences we have that they all add up to being truly alive.

 

 

 

 

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off duty

 

*off duty, temporarily relieved from one’s work.

 

Three weeks ago yesterday, I started a meditation class. I had begun practicing hatha yoga regularly again, and after some events, both personal and communal, that brought me a good deal of sorrow, I thought it would be a good time to take some steps to take better care of myself.

One of the first things mentioned in the practice of mindfulness is that most of the time we are asleep in our lives. We are physically awake, but we are asleep to the present moment. We function in auto-pilot. We operate from knee-jerk conditioned responses. We often don’t take the time to consider what is happening to us, what sensations are rising within us. And because of this, we are off duty, off duty to our true selves. We are relieved of the work of being mindful—by succumbing to distraction, by judging others and ourselves, by being unable to step outside and observe ourselves for a moment.

I have been thinking of the ways in which I feel dutiful. When I think of the word duty, it feels synonymous with obligations. I have certain duties: to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good teacher, and the list goes on. But the truth is that I have a larger duty, and that is to be a compassionate human being. I think of how often in being on duty to our commitments, we are off duty to our present selves, to our real needs.

Maybe I am running late to meet a friend for coffee, and when the light turns green and the person in front of me doesn’t immediately drive, I hold down the horn. Or maybe I don’t even honk, but I yell at him from inside my car. I have this reaction because he is a barrier, he is in the way of me fulfilling my current duty. What I do not realize is that he is also my duty because, in that very moment, it is my job to drive my car and to have an attitude of civility and patience to those on the road with me. But since I am already steps ahead, thinking about my friend sitting at the table alone and about my own judgment of myself for being late, I am unable to be present to the driver. And in honking my horn or yelling at him, I am also causing my own suffering.

Mindfulness is not easy. I am used to planning ahead. I am used to the frenzy that comes with checking off my to-dos. And when I’m not working, I have a habit of procrastinating, which is the opposite of mindfulness. In this action, I am not enjoying whatever I am doing—reading, surfing the web, watching t.v.—because I am trying to pretend that I am not avoiding my work. With this too comes suffering.

The first week of meditation, I found myself feeling so happy about it, a feeling, I would later come to recognize as ego. Look at me, I’m taking steps to be more healthy. I’m meditating. Yeah, it’s hard but I totally have this. And once I hit the first bump, which for me was our teacher saying we had to meditate daily for longer than I felt ready for, I instantly became resistant and even hostile. I kept doing my daily meditation, but the first few minutes were spent with me thinking of how I didn’t want to be sitting for as long as we were supposed to. Some mornings, I even gritted my teeth as I said the morning gatha—which, by the way, was: As I wake up this morning, I smile. A brand new day is before me.  I aspire to live fully in each moment and to see all beings with the eyes of compassion. I mean, what is more lovely than that? But for some reason, I just could not accept it.

I see similarities between the arising of resistance in meditation and the arising of it in my writing life. When I have resistance in my writing (oh, no, I can’t write about that, it’s too imperfect, it’s too raw, it makes me too vulnerable), I know that whatever I am resisting is exactly what I need to write into. In meditation, the resistance itself seems to be the affirmation that I need to continue doing it. I believe what I am resisting is not the meditation itself but the change, even if it is good, to old behaviors and old ways of seeing. To be engaged in mindfulness in one’s daily life is to commit not only to living in the present but to being completely honest with oneself. See how I defensively switched to “one” there? To be engaged in mindfulness in my life is to commit not only to living in the present but to being completely honest with myself. That sort of bareness sometimes feels daunting.

This week has been easier. By easier, I don’t mean that I always want to sit or that I always handle situations, meditation or otherwise, with grace. However, I think I am becoming more aware of the overall benefit of being more mindful and this allows me to have more acceptance of the discomfort that can arise. Because ultimately, I want to be on duty to the things that matter in my life. I want to be loving and kind to myself. I want to be loving and kind to those around me, both those known and unknown to me. I want to be present to the subtleties that life presents me with.

I’ll leave you with this quote by Buddhist monk, teacher, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh:

Meditation is not to escape from society,
but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on.
Once there is seeing, there must be acting.
With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help.

 

 

 

*[du·ty \ˈdü-tē also ˈdyü-\  n. [pl. DUTIES (-tiz)], [ME, dute, deute; OFr. Duete, what is due (owing); see DUE & – TY], 1. conduct owed to one’s parents, older people, etc.; behavior showing a proper regard or sense of obligation; obedience; respect.  2. any action necessary in or appropriate to one’s occupation or position.  3. conduct resulting from a sense of justice, morality, etc.  4. a sense of reeling of obligation: as duty calls.  5. a payment due to the government, especially a tax imposed on imports, exports, or manufactured goods.  6. [British], the performance of a machine as measured by the output of work per unit of fuel.  7. the amount of work that a machine is meant to do: as, a heavy-duty tractor.  8. in agriculture, the amount of water needed for irrigation per acre per crop: also duty of water.]

 

 

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dished

dished (disht), adj. [pp. of dish], 1. dish-shaped; concave. 2. farther apart at the top than at the bottom: said of parallel wheels.

There it is. The word of the week is “dished.” And unfortunately, since this is an old dictionary, it is not the past tense of “dish”: to gossip, to give the lowdown, to talk smack, etc. I will consider other ways I want to explore this word during the course of the week, but for now, I will be honest about something.

I really really really hate doing the dishes. I know that many people don’t like to do household chores, dishes being one of them. The lovely Buddhist monk and poet Thich Nhat Hanh talks about being present to your life, even when you are doing things you would rather not be doing. I remember him asking, Why would you wish your life away? Don’t wish away the moments when you are doing the dishes. Instead, be present during them. Now, I love him. I think he is a wise, spiritual, profound man. But I have to say, I have tried to be present doing the dishes and my mantra, inevitably, becomes, “I hate doing the dishes. I hate doing the dishes. I hate doing the dishes.”

I have thought about why. Part of it is because I have a small kitchen, with not much counter space, and thus doing the dishes is cumbersome. I also do not have a dishwasher so I have to scrub and scrub by hand. But I think the heart of it is that I like to get things messy, but I do not like picking up after. Cooking and baking = fun. Cleaning up after = no fun. Eating a delicious, beautiful meal= fun. Returning to the kitchen to scour a pan = not fun. I have a hard time relishing in the process of cooking and eating and then returning to do the work of cleaning up. Problem is, I don’t want to clean up later either.

So, dishes. They aren’t my favorite, but I am working on it. And from the picture of my kitchen, you can tell that, today, I dished.

dishes

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