In which the Precepts come to my rescue.

Life, Thoughts and Opinions

I don’t know about anybody else but the upcoming election and the news around it has spun me into a state of anxiety, the likes of which I haven’t seen in a very long time. My mind is racing and I can’t get a proper night’s sleep. Combine this with the fact that it’s “that time of year” and I’ve not really been myself lately.

Depression is a sneaky bastard. Lately I will be in the middle of a really horrible, self depreciating thought and something will make me come to my senses and I will realize, “Oh, I’m in a depression. And depression lies. OK. this makes sense now.” It’s at that point when I change my approach to self compassion and doing the things that I need to do as my brain works it’s way out of this sate.

This happened to me a couple of days ago. As I was realizing the state I was in I was thinking about how I do stupid things when I’m depressed, and I do them because my brain is telling me lies. I get worked up emotionally about delusions and then I act on those emotions sometimes and then I have to deal with the aftermath of these actions.

I realized that I have a tool to help me through this! The Precepts. I am so grateful for the precepts.  I have come to look at them as like a kind of roadmap to life. When I am in this deluded state I can look to the Precepts to help guide me to the right action, regardless how I feel. I can trust that whatever action I take, if it is based on the Precepts, things will be alright. If nothing else, I won’t have to deal with the karma of  my bad actions on top of the terrible feelings of despair that go along with depression.

Just having this realization has made me feel a lot better.

As a side note to myself, In light of this realization, I think I am going to make zazen a priority. I have been having a hard time motivating myself to meditate and that’s bullshit. All of the precept study in the world does nothing if I am not regularly practicing zazen everyday. 

Enjoy the silence

Thoughts and Opinions

Yesterday I went to my third-ever all day meditation retreat. I have to admit, I was little anxious about going a few days before I went. And if I was being really honest with myself, I was a little cranky about going. The thought of spending an entire day doing nothing but sitting and breathing and not talking to anyone sounded excruciatingly boring. I could think of a million other things I wanted to do. I could think of a million things I probably should otherwise be doing on one of my days of the weekend.

But I went because I knew that I needed to go.

I practice Buddhism in the Sōtō Zen tradition, which focuses on zazen (sitting meditation). And this is what we did for most of the day. We sat for 20 minutes, and then we would do something else to break up the zazen, like walking meditation, or work practice (cleaning, gardening, etc). We had a formal lunch, and we even did a form of meditation called Mondo (which is really cool). These extra things broke up the day in-between periods of sitting. We were not to speak to each other the entire day unless it was to give very brief instructions during the periods between zazen.

It seems weird to not talk to other people, almost rude actually. However, once you are in this kind of setting you realize that you can communicate with other beings without words. No I don’t mean telepathic mind-meld. I am just saying that words are only one way we communicate. Maybe we don’t need to  constantly be speaking to one another.  It’s ok to explore not speaking to other humans who are in the same room with you. You know?

The first 20 minutes of meditation first thing in the morning I almost panicked because I sat there, bored and wondered if this is what I was going to be dealing with all day. Not a great way to start things off.

But then my mind settled and I fell into a groove of watching my breath and my thoughts.

At some point in the afternoon I realized that I was, very much, enjoying the silence. My life is full of chatter and noise. I work in a public library and noise comes at me from so many directions. And I am an introvert – so this chatter tends to tire me out. I have gotten used to living with this constant chatter that I don’t even notice it anymore. Until it isn’t there. So I was really grateful for the lack of chatter yesterday. It allowed me to really follow what was going on inside my head, and it allowed me to put  some space around all of the thoughts so I could watch them arise and fall as they drifted through my mind.

Interesting thing that happened: all of those things that I felt like “I should otherwise be doing” didn’t matter at the end of the day. And they still don’t matter.


Zen Garden

At the Japanese Gardens in Portland.

Discipline. I’ve been thinking about that word a lot this past week. We’ve been reading “Zen Mind Beginners Mind” at my meditation group and the first chapter was about posture, specifically the correct posture to use in zazen. This correct use of posture helps make the practice (focusing on the breath) easier. As we talked about this we realized that it takes discipline to practice zazen. So this past week I’ve been really thinking about discipline and what it is and how it can help me in other ways.

The book talks about the correct way to sit, which is lotus position. There are various reasons why this is that I won’t get into. Unfortunately, I can’t pretzel myself into lotus position.  I want to sit in lotus position but I can’t sit in lotus position.  Thus, I’m going to practice sitting that way for a few minutes everyday with the explicit goal of being able to sit that way for the entirety of my zazan practice. I probably will only be able to do it for a few seconds at a time at first but, eventually with practice, I will reach my goal.

For some reason (maybe I’m just dense) this has been a revelation to me this week. It is so simple (at least in theory). Daily practice produces results. And it doesn’t matter how you feel about it. You don’t have to feel like doing whatever it is you are trying to accomplish. You don’t even have to be good at it. But if you practice everyday you will eventually be successful. That is discipline.

Zazen is a daily routine I’ve managed to established. Sometime last year I decided that sitting and breathing everyday would be a priority. If I can’t fit anything else into my day I will fit in meditation for at the very least 10 minutes. This practice  has helped me tremendously in the past year.  I can’t explain how it works but it does. The days that start with meditation are, generally, better days. I find that I am more mindful. Thus, if I want to be better at being more mindful I need to get my ass on the cushion every day for at least 10 minutes. Is it hard to do this? yes it is. The practice itself is not hard. It’s actually the easiest thing I’ve ever done. It’s just sitting and breathing. But getting to the cushion can be very difficult. I can talk myself out of zazen very easily. There is always something else to do.

Logically, it is very simple and it is logic that can be applied to many areas of my life. This is the part that is the big revelation.

For example, I haven’t been practicing the ukulele. My excuse has been that I don’t have time. In all honesty, it’s a good excuse because I really have little time left at the end of the day when all is said and done. However, I want to be able to play the ukulele in my story times next fall and I’m not going to be good enough to do this if I don’t practice. Thus, I have to fit some time into my day to practice. If I don’t practice I don’t get better. So this morning I tucked in a quick 10 minute practice session in between my shower and breakfast. yay!

Raf and I were talking about Karma the other day and he mentioned the metaphor of the apple tree used by Jack Kornfield in “Buddhism for Beginners.” Karma is not a mystical idea. It is really very simple. It is like planting an apple seed. If you plant an apple seed you will get an apple tree. And not only will you get an apple tree you will also get lots of apples AND more apple seeds. I suppose action is like the seed. And the effect of that action is the tree (and the effect of an action can go on and on, like the apple tree – but that’s a blog post for another time).  This idea of discipline is similar and just as specific. Daily practice is the seed. Daily practice produces skill (the apple tree). Simple.


Thoughts and Opinions

I mentioned that I would blog about my first zazenkai experience.

Since most of us in our little group are new to the practice of meditation it was decided that we would do a shorter version. So we planned for 6 hours. There was a very organized schedule. We, essentially, did zazen for 30 minutes followed by walking meditation for 30 minutes. We also had a lunch break scheduled as well. the idea is to spend the day without speaking or engaging anyone in any conversation. The point is to just be very mindful in everything that is done, from sitting and breathing, to walking around, even down to eating the meal. During the zazen we each took turns reading something out loud. I read that poem “The Guest House” that I shared earlier this month.

I was really nervous about going. I have never done anything like this. I was really leery about not being able to talk to anyone all day. I spend all day every day talking. I like talking and being sociable. So I wasn’t sure about how I would like being around my friends all day and not being sociable with them. But, I was willing to try it out. It kind of felt like the right thing to do.

It turned out to be an incredible experience.

The readings that were chosen by everyone were amazing. One of our group plays the native american flute and instead of reading something she thought she would play for us instead. I can’t even begin to tell you how awesome it was. Seriously. There are no words to describe it. One of the guys pretty much nailed it when he said, “That was a Dharma teaching.” And he is so right. I love how music can just transcend our intellect and speak directly to our soul. that’s exactly what happened.

Since I sat there all day and had nothing else to do, my mind wandered a lot.  I sort of went through all kinds of emotions.  Everything that has been bothering me I had to deal with because there it was, bubbling up to the surface of my mind.  At one point I remember thinking, “wow. is this that still point everyone is talking about?” But no. I was just starting to doze off.  It was actually a very peaceful, lovely feeling. Do you ever notice how it feels when you drift off to sleep? That feeling right before you are asleep? I had never noticed it before. It’s a really lovely feeling.

My profound realization at the end of the day? this is it:

It was just me sitting on a cushion.

There was nothing weird or overly spiritual about at all.  It was a day spent looking outside at the water droplets on the leaves. Or tasting my chicken stew and picking out the flavors of the vegetables. Or feeling the way my foot moves across the carpet when I walk. It was just me sitting on a cushion. Breathing.