Finding Opportunities to Practice

It’s that time of year again. The time when we participate in gatherings that may or may not inspire joy.  Sometimes we do it just because we feel obligated.  Or maybe it’s something we’ve always done so tradition (or, perhaps, inertia) is the motivator.  Often these gatherings turn out to be better than we anticipated.  Almost never does something turn out the way we expect it to.  But sometimes dealing with certain relatives or other attendees at various functions can be a source of exasperation.  We may be subjected to opinions we don’t share or rituals that annoy us.  When confronted with situations like this it may help to remember that these are prime opportunities for practice.

First, we can practice gratitude.  In an article in Tricycle magazine, Judy Lief, a Buddhist teacher, wrote about the “mind-training” teachings of Atisha, an Indian who lived in ancient times and proposed 59 slogans for preparing the mind for service to others, compassion and loving kindness.  In connection with slogan 13:  “Be grateful to everyone”, Ms. Lief writes:

“Instead of appreciating what we have, we keep focusing on what we do not have. We are filled with grudges and resentments and have strong opinions about what we deserve and what is our due. We may be taught to say “please” and “thank you,” but what have we been taught about appreciation?

In our commodified world, we see things as material for our consumption. We don’t ask, we just take. And in the blindness of our wealth and privilege, we don’t see how much we have to be grateful for. We take all that we have for granted and we live in a very ungrateful world.

This slogan assumes that we at least have basic gratitude for the good things that befall us. It then challenges us to extend that feeling of gratitude to include not just gratitude for what is positive, but gratitude for the negative also.

According to this slogan, we should be especially grateful for having to deal with annoying people and difficult situations, because without them we would have nothing to work with. Without them, how could we practice patience, exertion, mindfulness, loving-kindness or compassion? It is by dealing with such challenges that we grow and develop. So we should be very grateful to have them.”

It’s worth adding that we live in a pretty unforgiving and intolerant world as well.  A little extra tolerance goes a long way at any time of year, but particularly now when we are celebrating peace on earth and good will towards all.

Here’s another idea from Tricycle, this by  Susan Moon, the editor of Turning Wheel, the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship:

“If you have friends or relatives with whom you disagree about such things as the war in Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be painful. Practice deep listening: Listen without arguing, and try to hear what the other is really saying, remembering that . . .  all beings wish to be happy and avoid suffering. . . . If we human beings are going to stick around on this earth, we need to learn to get along not just with the people who share our views, but also, and more to the point, with the people who get our goat. And remember—we get their goat, too.”

We will probably never convince these people that we are right, just like they will probably never convince us that they are right either.  And after all, who among us really knows what is “right” or what is “wrong”.  The only thing we really know is that every choice has consequences.  For me, the key point here is that “all beings wish to be happy and avoid suffering”.  We all have our own irrational fears.  Once upon a time everyone was a baby.  Each of us came into the world without expectations or knowledge.  We may have genetic conditions that influence who we become, but much of our lives is a product of the environment in which we find ourselves.  Our arrival on the planet is an accident of birth for which we have no responsibility and over which we had no choice.  I reflect on this frequently.  We all make choices, but we also have to play the hand we’re dealt.  It might help to remember that when responding to difficult people.

But all of this is solemn stuff at a time when we are supposed to feel joy.  Of course, we shouldn’t need a special time of year for joy.  Every day is an opportunity for gratitude.  So maybe just for today, count your blessings and forget about your perceived shortcomings.  We’ve now passed the Winter Solstice so every day will have just a little bit more daylight.  Here is one more quote from another Tricycle article to inspire us to celebrate the light, this one from Zen Master Sheng Yen:

“When a candle is lit in a dark room, it illuminates the room to some extent, but its power is limited. But if you use the same candle to light another candle, the total brightness increases. If you continue to do this, you can fill the room with brilliant illumination. The idea of transferring merit to others is like this. If we keep our own light selfishly hidden, it will only provide a limited amount of illumination.”

Let us all shine our lights!  Happy Holidays to all!

Gratitude and Generosity

This is a time of year when it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of items on our to-do lists.  So many needs surround us that the last person in line for our attention tends to be ourselves.  It might be a good time to remember that if you don’t refill your own tank, you won’t have any fuel to power all those good deeds you want to do for others.  So taking time out for yourself is an act of compassion and a gift to all of those who need you.  These are not new ideas, but we all tend to forget so they are worth revisiting.  I’m as guilty of forgetting them as any of us, so sometimes I need to hear myself say these things, too.

One thing you can do for yourself is spend an hour or so focusing on your own miraculous ability to move and breathe. Although every day should provide an opportunity for gratitude, this time of year encourages a special emphasis. If you need further incentive to take some time for yourself, perhaps this quote from an article by Sallie Jiko Tisdale, a dharma teacher at Dharma Rain Zen Center, in Portland, Oregon in Tricycle magazine might help motivate you:

“Gratitude, the simple and profound feeling of being thankful, is the foundation of all generosity. I am generous when I believe that right now, right here, in this form and this place, I am myself being given what I need. Generosity requires that we relinquish something, and this is impossible if we are not glad for what we have. Otherwise the giving hand closes into a fist and won’t let go.”

No matter what level you’re at, if you can move and breathe you possess amazing skills!  Expressing your gratitude for them is an act of generosity.  So take that first step and just show up at a class.  Then you can pat yourself on the back and feel good for the rest of the day.

If the recent emphasis on perfect bodies still has you daunted and doubtful, perhaps a recent article by Erica Rodefer Winters, a writer and yoga teacher in Charleston, South Carolina, titled “The Pressure to be a Perfect Yogini” in Yoga Journal might help you finally put those objections to rest.  In the article she writes about all the photos and articles glorifying supposed “super-yogis” in pretzel poses emphasizing all their healthy activities.  She says:

“If you believe the social media profiles of these über practitioners, you’d think that they roll out of bed every morning at 5am to meditate and practice yoga for a couple of hours before they start their day. Then they drink a smoothie full of miracle foods. They follow a strict but “yummy” diet of raw, organic, locally sourced, gluten-free, vegan fare that they buy fresh from the farmer’s market every week. They have perfect, stress-free careers where they make a positive impact on the world . . .”

She continues:

“If someone like this exists in real life, I’d like to shake her hand. Then, I’d like to ask a few questions on behalf of stressed out, over-extended, exhausted yoga students everywhere.  First of all, what are you REALLY putting in those smoothies that gives you so much energy? (Don’t say kale. If you say kale, I might scream.) Do you ever sleep, snap at a loved one, or eat a few too many cupcakes?”

And finally:

“I don’t need any more ideas for my to-do list—no matter how healthy or good-for-the-world these tasks might be. I need to be reminded that sometimes it is more beneficial to my health to spend my time watching a movie on the couch, sleeping in, eating a delicious meal with my friends or family without worrying about the ingredients used to make it. I need to be reminded . . .that sometimes it’s wiser to just let the balls drop, forgive ourselves for causing our own unnecessary suffering, and commit to trying to be kinder and more loving to ourselves in the future.”

So be good to yourself this season.  It is an act of compassion that inspires generosity.  And no matter what you eat or look like you are always welcome in my classes!