Wandering with my eyes and heart open, searching for pieces to add to my own personal big picture.

Tag: zen buddhism

Calming the Surface: Meditation Practice

I write a lot about my meditation practice, and I probably talk a lot about it too, but I’m learning so much. I can’t help but share.

meditation practice

My beef with meditation in the past was I felt it wasn’t working. I’d sit and focus on my breath for ten minutes every morning. So what? I’m calm for those ten minutes, and then go into the rest of my day only to lose that calm almost immediately.

Ten minutes of exercise, while a good start and better than nothing, isn’t going to make anyone strong.

I increased my time to twenty minutes, made a point of doing it daily without exception, and made some progress. My mornings started with more calm, but by the afternoon…ugg…

I started an afternoon practice. Thirty minutes before my husband stops working, I sit in meditation and then journal. It helped smooth my evenings.

But what the heck? The only way to remain calm is to be in retreat from the world and spend more and more time in silent meditation? That doesn’t seem like living. I can’t wall myself off from the world.

I kept meditating and reading, studying, trying to learn more. There has to be more. And then I find this:

“…there are two streams of meditation practice within Buddhism. Their Sanskrit names are shamatha and vipashyana. Shamatha means “to calm the mind” whereas vipashyana means “to look into the mind.” Shamatha is usually translated into English as “calm abiding” and vipashyana as “insight.” It means seeing clearly.

There is a traditional example used to illustrate the differences between these two approaches to meditation. Imagine a lake surrounded by hills and snow-capped mountains. It is a clear mountain lake which reflects the surrounding mountains so accurately that it can be difficult to tell which image is the mountains and which just the reflection of the mountains on the lake’s surface. But when this lake becomes agitated by the elements, various things happen.

First of all, the surface of the lake breaks up so that it no longer reflects the mountains accurately. The image is still there, but it is distorted. In addition, because there are many waves and the surface is choppy, it is difficult for us to see into the lake to any depth. Not only is the surface of the water choppy, but the mud at the bottom of the lake is also stirred up. This pollutes the water, making it muddy and opaque.

This state is very much like our ordinary everyday mind, which is continually being agitated by the winds of the six senses.”

Ani Tenzin Palmo – Reflections on a Mountain Lake

The point of meditation is to calm the surface of the lake so that we can reflect the world with fewer distortions and see beneath more clearly to reach beneath and examine what we find.

This past six months, since I have increased my meditation time and made a concerted effort to keep up the practice daily, has changed things. My husband has commented on it, and so has my son. I don’t seem to react as quickly, I’m more reflective and less agitated by the little things.

I’ve found myself stopping to think when I feel something, sorting it out before I respond. I get less angry. I’m less depressed. I love myself more and I can easily extend that love to others, even those that seem to be determined to drive me crazy.

Don’t get me wrong. People still irk me with their behavior and choices, but I’m more likely to see them as beings in need of love and patience instead of enemies. Maybe not instantly, but in a reasonable amount of time before I react to them and make everything worse. This is part of the practice.

I’ve struggled with anger, depression, and stress my whole life. I’ve sought help from doctors that directed me to drugs, and therapists that seemed only to make the situation worse. I’ve lost money, time, and done damage to my body. And nothing has helped like one hour a day in mediation, reading, and journaling.

Keep Moving and Let Go

Keep moving and let go are the two ideas I want to share, but I’ll keep this short and sweet this morning. I’m nursing a carb hangover! Friday nights (except when it is exceptionally cold) are spent with friends and family, shooting pool, drinking home brewed beer, and eating the delicious food we all come up with each week. Last night I made lasagna, a neighborhood favorite. My neighbor made cheese bread that slayed us all. Yeah…I’m justifying the following words.

I cannot express how much I am enjoying learning from The Path of the Human Being. These few quotes and posts don’t do it justice. If you’re exploring Zen Buddhism, I’d highly recommend reading this. It’s the most helpful book I’ve found yet.

keep moving

“We only have to remember one thing: keep moving! Never stop letting of your understandings and views.” From The Path of the Human Being by Dennis Genpo Merzel

We strive everyday to understand the world around us and our place in it. We read, we discuss, we ask questions, and then we make a model to explain our understanding. Now here comes the hard part…let it go and keep moving down the path. The moment we hold onto a point of view, we stop looking for more meaning. We can’t receive and we can’t give. Our hands are too full. Let go.

“Yet when you let go of your mind, you do function more freely. You lighten up and have more fun playing the game. Before we realize that life is a game, we take the whole thing too seriously.” From The Path of the Human Being by Dennis Genpo Merzel

I love this one. I am continually guilty of taking things way too seriously. My mind is so busy trying to work out the next best step, putting myself in the least vulnerable position, trying to get ahead. All the while, I’m missing out on what is happening. I’m not playing the game. The game is playing me. And then, to quote Curious George, “All the fun is gone.”

Instead of the Force, see Darth Vader saying, “The ego is strong in this one.”

Yeah, last night I could have had one less shot of whiskey, one less bite of cheese bread, maybe said a few less colorful words around the table, but we were having fun. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve really made a mess of by overthinking things. My typical response is, “I HAVE to overthink because no one else is thinking at all!”

Last night, I let go of the things I thought were bothering me. I sat with friends and enjoyed the evening. Today, I’m enjoying a slow start to my day, and I’ll enjoy a nap later. Life is too short to take everything too seriously.

Click back to my first post on “The Path of the Human Being” for more posts inspired by this book.

Slow to Wake, Like my Journey to Zen

Strange…I was thinking about how to start this post. How do I title it and flow from there? That’s when it jumped out at me. You can title my whole journey to Zen, “Slow to Wake.”

Have you ever slept so deeply, so soundly, that you feel like it takes forever to wake up? That’s how I’m feeling this morning. I’m typically a light sleeper, always waking up and going back to sleep. I dream a lot. But it usually takes me only a few minutes to really hit the ground. This morning…I’ve been awake for two and half hours and I still feel groggy, not hung-over, just fuzzy in the head. I’ve been physically busy the last two days though, mudding drywall and sanding. I’m taking today off from that. My arms need the break!

This morning I have two quotes for you. I hope you like them as much as I do.

“The answer is simple, but the most difficult thing to do: cease seeking; stop looking for a solution. The truth is, there is no problem. There never was!” From The Path of the Human Being by Dennis Genpo Merzel

journey to zen

Being on this planet is not a problem. Having feelings is not a problem. Thinking is not a problem. Nothing is. We’re simply here. Things come and go. People live and die. The seasons change. And it goes on and on. Float with it.

This video from Thich Nhat Hanh summed it up nicely. We are not our ups and downs.

“It is not easy to let go of our perspective, the way we view ourselves, our self-identity. When we drop our perspective, we also lose our identity – at least the identity we know – and this is something we’re not eager to do.” From The Path of the Human Being by Dennis Genpo Merzel

Oh, that identity thing again. So often we hear, “You just need to find out who you are?” or “I’m searching for myself.” I’ve said them myself, among other gems.

A daughter, student, employee, cast member, girlfriend, wife, mother. A Christian, homeschooler, UNschooler, reader, American, Californian, moto-mom. The list goes on and on, changing every day. And each time we feel a change begin, we fight it with our whole being or move toward it with our whole being. Sometimes we’re devastated when the results don’t match our expectations.

What if we didn’t? What if we simply had no identity? Terrifying thought, right? What do we hold on to? Nothing. Like Princess Leia said, “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” And the more will fly right by you.

While we are here grasping our identity, the rest of the world floats on by us and we miss it. Experiences, opportunities, growth, it all passes us by while we white knuckle our grip on what we believe we already have or want.

My practice today includes letting go and remembering who I really am. Nothing and everything at the same time. It feels free.

To read more posts inspired by this book, start at “The Path of the Human Being.”

Tetris: Can my Zen Master Level be Applied to Life?

I heard something fantastic on the Secular Buddhism podcast yesterday. He said, “Life is more like a game of Tetris than Chess.” Imagine Linus when Lucy explains the meaning of “pantaphobia” and you’ll know my reaction to that analogy as I drove into the city.

PS I remember this as being in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special with Charlie Brown being the one receiving enlightenment, but I guess it’s elsewhere as well. Thanks, internet search!

Tetris and my Game Boy
Vintage! Can you still see my name written on it?!

I am the undisputed master of Tetris. In 1990, I was 18 when I got a Nintendo Game Boy for Christmas, and the first games I got were Tetris and Centipede. Tetris was by far my favorite pastime. I brought it everywhere I went; at school, at home, waiting for my car to be repaired. At work on Space Mountain at Disneyland, you would find me in the breakroom playing it, eyes glued to the screen, fingers tensely poised waiting for the next block.

When it got too easy to beat all ten levels, I made it harder by turning off the preview block, and then starting at the higher speed so that blocks didn’t ramp up coming down faster, they just started throwing themselves down. Undisputed I tell you! Twenty years later, when my sons were pre-teens, I wowed them with my skills when I brought out that bad boy and showed them what’s what.

So when Noah Rasheta said Tetris, my ears perked up immediately and it all came into focus. He went on with the analogy and I added some to it in my mind.

Have you played Tetris? It’s an simple game, not like these crazy ones they make today. Different shapes of blocks come sliding down the screen and you turn and pile them up to complete lines across the bottom so that they disappear. The lines pile up if you don’t complete them and then you lose. The key is to wait to see the piece, turn it to fit below in the best way possible, and return to the top. The pieces don’t stop falling and will speed up as you complete levels.

It’s fun. Trust me.

You run into trouble if you panic. Maybe you planned on getting a long piece to complete a Tetris (four lines complete at the same time), but you got a square and that’s not going to help. Maybe you accidently slammed the cross piece down in the wrong place and now you have a bunch of empty spots you can’t fill. Lines pile up. Heart rate increases. You freak out and turn it off.

That’s life. We can’t plan life out ten pieces into the future. If we’re lucky we can plan for the one we have and then next, but that’s it. The best way we can deal with it is to wait to see what happens, take a deep breath, and find a way to best fit that piece into our life. The alternative is messy and not fun.

Life throws us a square when we needed a straight piece, a left L shape when we wanted an X. It’s not what we get that makes us nuts, it’s panicking and making a bigger mess that throws us.

One of my biggest issues is that I am always trying to anticipate what the next ten pieces will be in my life and then forgetting to deal with the current piece that’s coming down the screen. Instead of doing the dishes, folding the laundry, and enjoying watching cartoons with my babies today, I’m worrying what we’ll do about the bad neighborhood we live in, whether my husband will be able to keep working, or if we’ll be able to afford going on a grand vacation next year. That’s a great way to miss life completely.

The other issue I thought of while I was contemplating the Tetris analogy, was that my already completed lines at the bottom might move out of place or not want a new piece to fit in with them at all. That doesn’t happen in the game! If I were operating alone in this world, levels would be simple to complete, but I’m not. I have a husband, children, extended family, and close friends to consider. But, then again, I am the Zen master of Tetris and those are the challenges that make the game more fun.

Hearing that analogy yesterday eased my troubled heart. There’s just so much up in the air, so much that could change. It’s hard to make plans for the future. But I can live right now as things are. Sure, I can take a glance out the corner of my eye at what might be coming in that small preview space, but my focus should be on the piece I have.

Life changes in the blink of an eye. I can’t let what might have been, what could be, or what everyone else is doing, distract me from what I have right here in front of me. I am the Zen master of Tetris. Bring it!

It turns out I’ve at the Tetris thought before! Check out Managing Distraction: A Repost to see some progress.

Zen Blogging? Writing To Learn

Is there such a thing as “Zen Blogging?” I googled it and found lots of blogs about Zen, but I’m thinking of something different. Can it be a Zen practice to blog about books and experiences? After reading this book, I have a new mindset about what I do here and I know that was not the intent of the author.

Zen blogging
Returning to Silence book cover

Returning to Silence took me nearly 8 hours to read and it’s only 175 pages long. I took copious notes, nearly 8 large pages, and I learned a lot but…

I don’t think I’d recommend this book to someone who simply wants to know a little more about Zen Buddhism. Maybe it’s my western mind, but it feels too “woo-woo” to me, too “out there.” I need something more concrete and precise, simplified at the beginning.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. There was a lot in here to glean, especially since I’m listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. That helped me put some of what he was writing about into personal context.

Zen blogging
Proof of my efforts to learn.

I read only about twenty minutes at a time. Each time I read, once I felt I gained an idea, I stopped and tried to write it down in my own words. It sounds tedious, but it didn’t feel so. Going thru my notes now, I’ll share my favorite gems that I have mined over the last month of reading.

Peace: Accepting What Is

Not a popular opinion but it feels right. If I fight for or against something, I’m still fighting. Like a fish caught in a net, the best thing we can do is relax and let the situation chill a bit. Once we find the peace, it’s much easier to assess our surroundings and make the best choices going forward.

Suffering: Human life is limited by conditions

Where we are born, and when, our physical and mental capabilities, etc., these are not up to us. We can’t ignore or escape them. “It means that as best we can, we should create better conditions from moment to moment,” by releasing our attachment to these conditions.

Express Only Peace

Yes, things are irritating and wrong sometimes, but the more we protest, hold signs, make statements, and change our profile frame on social media, the less peace we have, the more stress we put out into the world. That doesn’t mean you aren’t angry. It doesn’t mean you can’t volunteer at a homeless shelter or vote in the next election to change a law, or create a business that makes something better for the world.

Emptiness: Pure Activity

Just do it. Simply plan and then get busy. One thing at a time, one project, one task: if we put our focus into that thing, we not only achieve our goals, but we also get the added benefit of mental rest.

We’re all someone’s hero AND someone’s enemy at the same time, in everything we do.

My mere presence on this earth irritates someone and elates another. It is unavoidable. Live your life and leave others alone.

Ignorance Is Thirsting Desire

Thirsting desire to please oneself continuously, to insist on the continuation of one’s existence, to have and maintain power and prosperity. We can’t extinguish these desires, only acknowledge their existence and try to use it in positive ways. We can plant a tree to create shade and beautify our world, but we can’t have a fit if it dies. We can go to Disneyland and entertain our hearts, but we can’t lose our shit when the lines are long and the cost is high.

Here’s a tasty one…

We tend to label and define everything we see and experience according to our teaching, our feelings and perceptions, culture, etc. Then we judge the world accordingly. But it is not the reality of things that we are railing against.

We say to ourselves, “That is the moon!” as we point to it and tell stories about it, creating a new version of the moon. Each person on earth, each culture, each generation, does this. But there is only one actual moon, the one we physically experience and are connected to. The deeper our mythology, our stories, the further we are from reality.

There is no “us” and “them,” only “we.”

Each of us could be the other at any given time or circumstance. Like a droplet, when it drops into a still body of water, creates ripples that circle out and away and peter out. That drop had a different circumstance, it effected the body, and then became one with it. That’s us. Create the smallest ripples you can.

The Tortoise and The Hare

The tortoise won the race…or not…doesn’t matter. The point is that we make every possible effort to keep moving, give quality to the effort, instead of expecting the result of the effort. Dory is right, “Just keep swimming.”

The next two are what brought the idea of Zen blogging to mind, so I’ll keep them together and finish here.

“Most people want to teach only after mastering something completely.”
“Making something is really the practice of giving.”

I’m not the master of anything, except maybe sorting Legos or cleaning. But I do love to read, especially non-fiction. I love history, philosophy, economics, government, religion, everything. The more I read, the more I realize how little I know, but I still want to share what I’ve found. That’s why I write this blog.

So maybe Zen blogging is a thing. Reviewing, writing out my thinking, and connecting things I read to my experiences, helps me process what I’ve read. I’m explaining what I’ve found to you, to help myself think more clearly and retain what I’ve learned. A byproduct of that process is that you get to read those thoughts. I’m making these posts, for no other purpose than to share it.

There are times, every damn week, that I think to myself, “What’s the point of any of this?” I could write these things in a journal and walk away. I don’t need to make it pretty, add pictures and headlines, and post it online. But books like this remind me that a candle burning under a box only starts a fire that destroys things. By writing and posting, I’m lighting my candle and setting it in the window. It lights my room and allows others to find me, to read by it, or to use it to guide them on their journey elsewhere. It’s up to you. I cannot be attached to the outcome of my creation. That would not be Zen blogging at all.

Read more about the book in my first post about it, “New Read: Returning to Silence.”

Zen Habits and This How ’bout Heat, Man?!

Surprise! It’s hot! Damn hot! Can Zen Habits help me here?

Zen habits quote on a desert sunrise.

The heat stresses me out and no matter where I go, I can’t seem to escape summer temperatures. Yes, I know I live in the desert. That is what makes the heat tolerable. Because do you know what’s worse than heat? Humidity. By living here, I avoid that almost completely.

Yesterday, I started to panic. It was day two of a heat wave that is supposed to last a whole week. When it’s hot like this, I’m stuck indoors and there is nowhere to drive to get out of it. The mountains aren’t cool enough, the movies are closed during the day now. What else can I do?

And then something I’m reading came to mind.

Thich Nhat Hanh, simplified the rules in just a few words: “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

I’m still reading “Returning to Silence” by Dainin Katagiri, but it’s getting a tad tedious. I want to scream, “Get to the point, man!” Everything is and isn’t at the same time. Everything is good and bad, wrong and right. I keep finding small bits floating around in that resonate with me, but it’s like fishing a piece of eggshell out of the egg you broke into the already hot frying pan. It scoots away as you reach for it, and the pan is hot, the egg is cooking, you’re running out of time.

But here’s one thing that captured my attention this morning.

“So I went to school to try to learn Buddhism and end my suffering, but the complete opposite happened. The teacher gave me many books on Buddhism to read, which I did. Finally, he gave me a book on the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness. It is a collection of many simple sentences, but if you read it, it is really strange and hard to understand. Finally I thought, “Why did I become a monk?” It made me suffer more.”

That’s exactly where I am with this book. He keeps saying, “Don’t try so hard.” “We’re already enlightened, we just need to realize it.” “Don’t use the practice to get somewhere.” It’s irritating.

Yesterday, as I was reading, I did find a few of those, “Yes! That makes sense!” pieces, but I kept thinking, “How can I remember and practice some of these ideas when I’m out in the world?” I tend to run high on anxiety and at full speed. I react more often than I respond and tend to get myself into trouble. Then I withdraw. Maybe I’m just not built to be in this world.

That makes no sense. What’s the point of being alive at all if all you do is sit at home and never experience the world around you?

Then I came across this article at Zen Habits called, “12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen Monk” and it shifted my thinking.

Which brings me back to the heat. As I watered my plants and trees today, the early morning sun beating down on me (it was already 90), I started to grumble. It was 115 degrees yesterday and today’s weather report said it would a little hotter, peaking on Friday and Saturday. How was I going to survive?! Why do I live here?! Who lives like this?!

Yeah, I have been known to be a little dramatic. So?

Then I remembered Zen Habits, “Smile. Breathe. Slow down.”

I smiled. Yes, it’s hot. It’s always hot like this mid-June. It’s like the solstice has to announce that it has arrived. “Hello! I am the sun and I am here all damn day! Enjoy my brilliance!” It gets blazing hot for a week as a result. I smiled at the thought of the sun being so obnoxious.

Then I took a breath. The birds don’t seem to mind. They just continue. And there are lots of them. The plants survive. The rabbits, squirrels, and coyotes, too. I made sure the water dish near the bushes was full of cool water. I made a little oasis for them.

I slowed down. I moved my potted plants into the shade, so they only get morning sun, watered the trees nice and deep and was thankful for those big wide leaves. What if I change my thinking and wonder how hot it will get? Will we break a record at the house this year? Since we moved here, I’ve had an electronic thermometer in the yard. It keeps a record of highs and lows. The record high is 117 and it was made two Junes ago. Will we get to 118? Let’s find out.

Next week, the weather will cool again. The high 90’s are not bad at all when the humidity is so low. It usually hovers around 10%. I will go back to talking a long walk in the morning, just before the sun comes up. Besides, the changes are what make life interesting. The hot summer breaks into a cool fall and the cold winters warm into a beautiful spring. I stood there watching a dove on its nest wondering if we’ll get any rain later this summer.

Zen habits win! Nothing changed but my thinking, my realization that all is as it should be, as it always has been. Katagiri says that we are all buddha already, we are born “enlightened,” we just need to accept it. For a moment, I caught a glimpse of that and there was peace.

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