Finding Resonance with Your Practice: Easing into the New Year January 31, 2023 19:01
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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--
The Benefits of Motivation and Curiosity: On the Road and in a Meditation Practice July 31, 2021 16:55
(photo credit: Muhammad owsama via Unsplash)
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog post, please click here for the audio link.
These past few weeks, I have been grateful to be able to drive to Bloomington to attend Dharma teachings in-person at TMBCC (Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center).
The center is now open for weekly teachings, and visitors are required to wear masks (an act of compassion that protects themselves and others).
An ongoing (and major) construction project is happening on State Road 37, which is the road I usually take to B-town. Part of this highway is closed, and a detour is required in order for me to reach my destination. The orange cones, "rodeo barrels," and ever-changing traffic patterns with unexpected curves and sharp turns make this weekly commute a continual surprise. The road is forever morphing and changing.
However, dedication, curiosity, and motivation inspire me to navigate my way back and forth each Sunday. I wake up a little earlier. I leave the house a little sooner, and I keep an open, judgment-free mind. Expectations typically create unwanted limitations, and they are a sure-fire way to set myself up for disappointment and stress.
I type in the address on the GPS system in my car and follow the directions (usually--a few rebellious "route recalculations" are part of the fun). Each time I've taken this trip, my car has led me on a different route.
I'm exploring new pathways.
I'm trusting the guidance.
I'm open to discovery, and I'm curious about the journey.
This is SIGNIFICANT growth for me. I am notoriously bad at directions, and I get lost and turned around very easily. As a result, getting lost used to be quite anxiety-triggering for me...to the point that it would prevent me from exploring new places and experiences.
I'm also not usually thrilled about driving long distances, either. This commute takes me well over an hour each way. However, I have been enjoying these excursions. I'm more relaxed and patient in the car. I'm less fearful and more open. I'm less disoriented and more curious. I don't worry about the time as much as I used to, and I have enjoyed taking in the new scenery each week.
I'm not sure what's changed, but because my motivation is strong, I'm more flexible, accepting, and eager to discover new pathways.
Meditation practice is like this, too.
Meditation is a method of self-regulation. Over time, a regular practice regulates my thoughts, which can trigger a relaxation response in the body.
Scientific studies have shown that meditation can reduce inflammation, which can ward off harmful disease. Meditation can increase insulin production, which can improve blood sugar regulation in the body. Meditation can also have anti-aging effects by preserving the ends of chromosomes (called telomeres).
Consequently, training the mind through a regular meditation practice can indirectly affect the expression of genes and influence the production of hormones. In other words, meditation can affect your body on a cellular level!
It can also encourage the growth of new neural pathways in the brain. This process is also known as self-directed neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to adapt to change. The environment, thoughts, and actions can influence the brain's ability to create these new neural pathways.
A regular meditation practice can improve the ability to focus and remain present. It can lead to reduced stress and anxiety, and it can also enhance and improve intuition and interoception (an awareness of sensations inside the body).
Meditation naturally leads to improved self-awareness and self-regulation. It can also prevent age-related brain atrophy and protect against memory loss. Meditation retrains the brain to become more fully present and to rely less on living unconsciously on "auto-pilot."
It's not easy to break away from ingrained habits--to bust out of the status quo and embrace new things.
Change is possible.
Growth is possible.
Where you choose to place your attention determines the quality of your life.
Personally, meditation has encouraged me to take more responsibility for my life. I feel more confident, and I'm more willing to explore new experiences and interests. I'm also less judgmental and fearful.
So, maybe not being able to travel to Bloomington and attend Dharma teachings in-person for several months gave me more time to meditate at home and hone my own self-directed neuroplasticity skills.
And, maybe all of these construction projects with their detours and alternate routes are pushing all of us, gently, out of our well-worn habits and encouraging us to explore and appreciate the scenery of unknown roads.
The path to awareness is both a physical and mental journey, and being open, curious, and motivated will help make this journey more meaningful and enjoyable.
Speaking of enjoying your practice--I have added several new mala designs to the online shop. Feel free to check out the full collection here.
Hitting the Reset Button: Retreat and Recharge April 3, 2017 13:46
The only thing that matters is this breath. The only thing that matters is slicing this apple. The only thing that matters is this step. The only thing that matters is this blue heron taking flight over a pond.
I recently spent three days in a secluded cabin at the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana, for a personal retreat. I needed a little time to unplug (literally and metaphorically) from the world and to reconnect with myself and my practice.
I stayed in a circular, yurt-inspired cabin. It had a small kitchen, a domed skylight , walls painted a soothing sea foam green, plenty of floor space for yoga practice, and a deck with a view of the woods.
During my stay, I made serenity a priority. I practiced yoga every morning before breakfast and every evening before going to bed. I wandered in the woods and grounds of the Center in between stints of light rain showers. I circumambulated the Kalachakra Stupa while chanting. I ate meals mindfully. I meditated on the deck. I strung beads on a mala. I chatted briefly with gray squirrels, attendants at the nearby gift shop (The Happy Yak), Geshe Kunga on his way to the temple, and an aging, but friendly pug named Norbu.
For three days, I paid close attention to sounds that I’m not accustomed to hearing—wind chimes, fluttering prayer flags, rain on the roof, squirrels skittering on the deck. I took time to enjoy food—to savor every bite—sliced oranges in a bowl, raspberry cheesecake, toast with Marionberry jam, Greek yogurt with spiced butternut squash and apricots. I watched the sunrise between the trees and the stars from the skylight.
No obligations or interruptions, no striving or planning, this retreat was all about allowing and being. My headaches (and hot flashes) subsided; my stress levels decreased dramatically. By releasing the usual day-to-day distractions, it allowed me to connect more deeply to myself and the environment.
I look forward to visiting TMBCC again for future retreats. In the meantime, I can choose to find stillness and serenity in this moment, regardless of where I am. I can choose to make my meditation/chanting practice a priority every day, beginning each day with recitations,instead of postponing it to the end of the day when I am mentally and physically fatigued. I can choose to unplug from the frenetic busyness of my day-to-day life for just a few minutes in order to reboot and recharge energetically.
The only thing that matters is this breath. The only thing that matters is this traffic light. The only thing that matters is this student who will deliver her speech in an hour. The only thing that matters is this sip of lukewarm chai tea.