Slow Down: Savoring the Practice of Pausing November 30, 2023 10:00
If you prefer to listen to this month's offering, click HERE for the audio link.
At various times throughout this month, I have received several nudges from the universe to slow down. For example, as I was driving home from school a couple weeks ago, I slowed down while entering a roundabout. I heard a car horn beeping behind me, and from my side mirror, I saw a small blue car. Inside, a cranky man was shaking his fist at me, urging me to go-go-go.
Apparently, he didn’t notice the giant “YIELD” sign to our right—or the three cars whipping around the circle from the left, which motivated me to slow down and pause.
I gestured toward the fast-moving cars—but cranky man just shook his head in frustration. When it was safe, I entered the circle. Cranky man in the little blue car buzzed by me, irritated, agitated, and totally unaware that I was not just looking out for myself, but I was looking out for him and others as well.
Another nudge from the universe came in the form of a poem that I came across by one of my all-time favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye. This poem, “Every Day,” is from her collection A Maze Me: Poems for Girls, published in 2005.
My hundred-year-old, next-door neighbor told me:
Every day is a good day, if you have it.
I had to think about that a minute.
She said, Every day is a present
someone left at your birthday place at the table.
Trust me! It may not feel like that,
but it’s true. When you’re my age,
you’ll know. Twelve is a treasure.
And it’s up to you
to unwrap the package gently,
lifting out the gleaming hours
wrapped in tissue,
don’t miss the bottom of the box.
Busyness is a habit of mind, and it can be an indication of an agitated nervous system. We are encouraged in American society to go-go-go, do-do-do, hurry-hurry-hurry, constantly chasing the mind as it leaps ahead into the future, leaving the body behind in a state of rattled confusion. The mind screams, “Look how busy I am! I am soooooo important!!!”
Right. I get it! I have certainly been caught up in this cycle. When I taught high school English, there were times when I was hyper-aware of the clock on the wall, and my days were measured in fifty-five-minute intervals, with ringing bells and five-minute passing periods. I remember the constant cycle of planning lessons and grading essays. I remember times when I was so focused on being prepared for anything that I was rarely focused on “what is” and present with my students sitting right in front of me. In other words, I was missing the bottom of the box.
Ironically, running around from task to task, obligation to obligation is just another form of laziness. According to Venerable Thubten Chodron, abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Washington state, “Being super-busy in a worldly way is another kind of laziness because it keeps us from our practice.”
A go-go-go, do-do-do, hurry-hurry-hurry mindset is a limiting one…and an exhausting one. It distracts us from what is most meaningful, and it prevents us from seeing the bigger picture.
Paradoxically, the most meaningful, big-picture moments, often involve taking the time to slow down, notice, and contemplate the small things:
*the rhythm and flow of the breath
*the syncopated sounds of rain on the roof
*a passage from a book or line from a poem that makes you stop, underline it, and read it again
*the sound of a child’s laughter in a grocery store
*watching leaves flutter to the ground
*watching the full moon shift and rise through bare branches
Small things, for me, are my portals to deep awareness. Small things encourage me to slow down—to pause—to do less and enjoy more—and to notice, really notice, what’s going on around me.
I’ve also noticed that making time for consistent, daily practices (for me, that includes meditation, mantra recitations, and Feldenkrais lessons) increases the likelihood that I’ll notice and appreciate the small things with big-picture potential—these tiny portals of awareness.
The biggest nudge from the universe came the other morning when I made time to visit a dear friend and former colleague. She has survived more than one stroke, has experienced slow, but steady cognitive decline, and is currently recovering from a recent heart attack.
The hospital where she is staying is close to the school where I work as a part-time tutor, and I was able to spend time with her between student sessions.
When I walked into her room, she was sleeping. I talked to her while she rested, describing the view outside her window. I told her about the large, billowy clouds and the streaks of sunlight shining through them. I told her about the air traffic control tower that I could see from the nearby airport, and every few minutes, an airplane would rise up and disappear into the billowy clouds streaked with sunshine.
She was surrounded by gently beeping monitors and was covered with a fleece blanket with turkeys and pumpkins on it. A muted National Geographic program about Egyptian art was playing on the television.
A friend had visited her the day before and brought her a green stuffed rabbit. She hugged it close to her as she slept. The color made me think of Green Tara, and I softly sang the mantra to her like a lullabye: Om Tare Tutarre Ture Soha, Om Tare Tutarre Ture Soha, Om Tare Tutarre Ture Soha, Om Tare Tutarre Ture Soha…
I told her how grateful I was for her friendship over the years, how her mentorship was extremely helpful when I first started teaching.
I thought about all the places she’d traveled with her family, all the stories she’d shared about her adventures, and how much her students admired her.
I didn’t know if she would awaken while I was there, so I made the most of the time I had with her. I was fully present with her.
Fortunately, she did wake up after a short while, and we had time to chat. Her eyes lit up when she saw me; she was delighted to have someone waiting to talk with her when she woke up. She struggled to find words at times, and her mind would catch in cognitive loops, bringing the conversation around to the same topics or questions. She confused me for other friends at times, or one of her daughters, but it didn’t matter. I was happy to have time to see her and to talk with her.
This visit with my friend did not make me feel sad. Instead, I felt joyful and relieved to have a chance to thank her for all of her helpful advice and friendship over the years. I had time to hold space and be present with her while she slept and while she was awake.
Slowing down means savoring the present moment, accepting what is with grace and dignity.
Listening to nudges from the universe, taking in these small moments, and appreciating the joy of pausing—these are the “gleaming hours/ wrapped in tissue.” Paying deep attention to these portals of awareness: this, too, is practice.
I hope you all are finding joy during this Holiday Season. May you be able to slow down and appreciate your own portals of awareness during this time. Please know that I have added several new designs to the Middle Moon Malas online collection, and they make thoughtful gifts for loved ones who have a meditation practice, or for yourself. Please consider purchasing a hand-knotted mala design to inspire meaningful practice and to support a small business. Much gratitude!
Finding Resonance with Your Practice: Easing into the New Year January 31, 2023 19:01
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, click here for the audio link.
It's hard to top last month's blog post about a life-changing trip to India, so I'm going to keep things simple and easy this month.
January, with it's cold temperatures and snowy conditions, has brought many opportunities for practice, and I have gently leaned into all of them.
This month, I committed to beginning each morning by reciting the 21 Praises of Tara. Before reaching for my phone, before getting dressed--I turn on my bedside table light and chant these praises in English from a small booklet I received from an earlier retreat.
It takes just a few minutes, and it's an easy, peaceful way to begin the day.
Mornings are fairly hectic for me, especially on the days when I tutor. I'm scrambling to shower, dress, eat breakfast, make a lunch before leaving for school. However, taking five minutes to practice right when I wake up is totally doable.
Sometimes, Zora will join me. She'll jump up on the bed, stare at me with her big green eyes, and purr as I chant the stanzas to a simple melody.
I'm sensitive to music, and melodies stay with me for a while, even after the music has stopped, so all the Taras are with me as I'm making breakfast and pouring hot tea into a tumbler. They also ride with me in the car as I'm commuting to school, which is perfectly fine by me. I enjoy their company.
At the beginning of this month, my friend Kim invited me to participate in a ten-day meditation challenge through the Ten Percent Happier app. I'd heard about this challenge on Roshi Joan Halifax's Facebook page, and I'd listened to the Ten Percent Happier podcast with the interview with Dan Harris, who was the main host of this ten-day challenge, so saying yes to this challenge was a no-brainer.
I enjoyed the brief videos before each meditation session. Harris and Roshi Joan had traveled to Dharamshala to interview HHDL for this project, and seeing familiar sights where I had recently traveled with my Dharma friends was motivating and comforting.
Roshi Joan led the meditations each day, which lasted for ten minutes. It was easy to make time for them--some of the sessions I was able to do at school between student sessions. This was a short-term commitment, and Kim and I encouraged each other to practice daily through the app.
Over the past few winters, I have committed to participating in Sravasti Abbey's Retreat from Afar. These retreats span the course of several months, and participants can choose how much time they wish to devote to the daily practices--anywhere from one to four months.
Personally, I like the four-month commitment. This year's retreat is a little different from previous retreats. The focus this year is on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, which I have heard about, but I haven't delved into specific practices related to them.
For previous RFA retreats, I would listen to the teachings the nuns would post on YouTube and read the weekly articles they would share via email. I would practice the meditation or sadhana sessions on my own.
This year's format is more community-based. I've been looking forward to participating in their daily practice sessions on Zoom. They host two public sessions. Sometimes I catch the morning practice, and sometimes, I have to wait to practice during their evening sessions.
It's nice to have a couple of options, and I'm enjoying the structure, format, and melodies of the prayers. I'm also enjoying the guided analytic meditations and visualizations nestled between the sadhana prayers.
One of the things I like about these annual retreats is I don't have to leave home and abandon my work responsibilities. I also like that the nuns freely offer recorded teachings via YouTube. For this retreat, Ven. Sangye Khadro shared a series of twelve teachings related to the Four Establishments that she taught in 2021. She also recommended a book, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana to supplement and support our daily practices.
While this opportunity requires more time and dedication than the ten-day meditation challenge and month-long Tara recitations, it is interesting and engaging to me, and I am definitely reaping benefits from it.
I'm hoping to be able to visit Sravasti Abbey in person some day.
Since September's Chenrezig retreat led by Geshe Kunga at TMBCC in Bloomington, I have been practicing the Chenrezig sadhana on the daily at home. I read it aloud in Tibetan and in English. This practice, too, has become more comforting and familiar each time I recite it.
I enjoy the melody shifts as I make my way through each section of the sadhana, and my fluency and pronunciation with the Tibetan language continues to improve slowly with this practice as well.
My days lately have become crowded with various practices, but they aren't burdensome have to's--they are sources of comfort, and they offer just enough structure to make me feel like I've accomplished something meaningful.
Some of these practices are temporary. The Retreat from Afar will end in April, and I have one more day of reciting the 21 Praises of Tara in the morning.
Each practice is an offering--a dedication, and, collectively, these practices dovetail and enhance each other. Most importantly, I've noticed that the more regularly I practice, the more benefits I notice when I'm not sitting on the cushion.
*I'm calmer and more relaxed.
A couple of Sundays ago, the temperature was just low enough to turn wet streets slick and icy. I was driving in Bloomington early in the morning, and my brakes locked up as I was approaching a red light. I was able to glide over into the right lane to avoid the stopped car in front of me, and I continued to glide through the red light without getting hit--or freaking out.
*I don't plunge into spirals of worry and anxiety...as often :).
My husband and I were notified by a sub contractor for the power company that they were going to have to cut down 25 trees along our long driveway in order to replace a couple of old telephone poles. While this news was upsetting, I didn't freak out. My husband had a contact that proved to be invaluable--the name and number of the regional director of this power company. He called and explained the situation.
In the meantime, I did what I could--I reached out to my monk friends and asked if they would offer prayers for these vulnerable trees during their next puja ceremony. During my own visualizations during practice, I imagined miniature golden Shakyamuni Buddhas on every branch of these trees. These Buddhas dissolved into bright lights and traveled into their trunks all the way down into their root networks.
We received good news this afternoon--the trees would not need to be cut down, and the sub contractor that gave us the bad news initially would be removed from this project, replaced with someone with a little more respect for nature and compassion.
Was it the phone call or the prayers and visualizations? Maybe all of the above. It doesn't matter--skillful action and dedicated practice paid off.
* I'm more open to exploring options and adventures.
Instead of sitting in the never-ending construction traffic on I-465 when driving home from school only to exit onto another major road that is also under construction, I explored several options, thanks to Google Maps, until I found a route that avoids major traffic, long waits at stop lights, and views blocked by semis and dump trucks.
I don't save much time with this scenic route, but I don't mind. I am able to keep moving at a safe, steady pace, I enjoy the view along the way, and when I arrive home, I am in a much calmer state of mind.
One of the biggest lessons that I've learned over the years is the importance of finding my way into my own personal practices.
What works for some of my Dharma and spiritual friends doesn't necessarily resonate with me, and what resonates with me, may not resonate with you....and that's OK. Practice is practice.
The important thing is to find what does resonate--and to make a commitment and some time for practice--every day, even if it's just for a few minutes. Sometimes it takes an open mind and an adventurous heart to find what works, but when you do, you'll know it because your life will begin to change...for the better.
I have added several beautiful malas and quarter malas to the online collection recently. Check it out, while you're here--and if a design resonates with you...you know what to do :).
See you next month--