Different, Not Less: Confronting Ableism and Celebrating Inclusivity in Dharma Practice April 28, 2023 08:38
For those who prefer to listen to this article, please click HERE for the audio file.
Every day I walk by a poster that hangs on the wall around the corner from my office. In bold, colorful letters, it reads: “Different, Not Less.”
According to Buddhist texts, attaining a human life is extremely rare—as rare as “a blind turtle surfacing in a vast ocean every one hundred years and managing to put its head through a wooden yoke.”
In This Precious Life: Tibetan Buddhist Teachings on the Path to Enlightenment, Khandro Rinpoche outlines the eighteen qualities that are needed to attain a “precious human life.”
One of these qualities is the third personal endowment—that we are born with our six senses intact: “Our eyes can see, our ears can hear, etc., …our mind consciousness has the ability to discern right from wrong. Having all of our senses intact, we can remain in the ground of awareness with all of our perceptions, which is a precious quality.”
That may be so, but, I’m not going to lie, it also strikes me as extremely ableist as well.
I have been an educator for over thirty-five years, and I have worked with students, teachers, staff, and parents who were visually impaired, hearing impaired, or neurodivergent. Some endured conditions such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, or paralysis. Regardless of their circumstances, what they shared in common was a yearning for knowledge and a strong capacity for curiosity and growth. Through much patience, determination, and effort, they succeeded academically and professionally, despite these challenges and “differences.”
You can’t tell me these students, colleagues, and parents weren’t precious—or capable of realizing wisdom and compassion.
Early on in my teaching career, I taught English at a very large high school in Indianapolis. This was long before 9/11, frequent news stories of school shootings, and data-driven standardized testing mandates. Our football team was doing very well that year, and, as a result, we had all-school convocations in the gym virtually every week leading up to the State Championship game.
On Fridays, students were corralled and packed into bleachers to celebrate the physical prowess and accomplishments of athletes along with the strategic genius of the coaching staff.
After every win, there would be a convocation. There were many wins that season…and many convos, which cut into our valuable teaching time and student learning time.
These celebrations became so commonplace that students and teachers sat in the bleachers like zombies, their eyes glazed over from boredom and complacency.
For me, however, there was a bright spot. Her name was Nikki. She was not a student in my class, but I would look for her during every pep session. Nikki had Down Syndrome and sat in the front row, courtside, along with her Special Education teacher and other MOMH students.
As students filed into the gym, Nikki sat quietly, but as soon as the band started to play the school song, she was on her feet, clapping her hands, smiling, her eyes wide open. She embodied and radiated joy while the rest of us sat quietly, unmoved.
For me, she outshone the cheerleaders with their practiced smiles and plastic pom-poms.
Seeing Nikki in the gym every Friday afternoon made me question who was the one with the disability?
Nikki was fully present during these weekly pep sessions, and each week, her genuine smile lit up the whole gymnasium. She had a capacity for joy that the rest of us could not comprehend or touch.
For all I knew—Nikki could have been a Bodhisattva, despite her diagnosis and cognitive challenges.
You can’t tell me she didn’t inhabit a precious human life. For those of us fortunate enough to notice her in the crowd during these weekly convos, we benefited from her uninhibited exuberance, her genuine joy, and her undying enthusiasm.
Recently, I watched a meaningful Dharma talk on YouTube. Vicky Beckett’s talk was called “Disability, Ableism, and the Dharma: Liberation from Views.” Beckett is a disabled Buddhist practitioner, and she gave this talk during a Buddhist festival in the U.K.
She began by explaining that the root of ableism is the mistaken belief that disabled bodies are worth less than abled bodies.
Beckett described some of the accessibility challenges that she has faced as a disabled practitioner who requires a wheelchair.
One of the most important questions that she posed during her talk was, “We know this human birth is a precious opportunity to awaken, so why are we deciding that some lives are worth more than others?”
Our experiences occur within the circumstances, dispositions, forms, and loci of our own bodies. Many teachers and texts agree that we create our worlds with our minds, that nothing exists inherently, and that nothing is permanent. After all, there are millions of disabled people in this world, and, at any moment, we could be one accident or one health crisis away from becoming a member of this demographic.
Beckett’s primary point in her talk was that regardless of our physical condition, “being alive in this body…RIGHT NOW…awakening is possible, whether you are disabled or able-bodied. This life is precious…rare…and beautiful.” I couldn’t agree with her more.
As a Buddhist, I do believe in reincarnation, and while I firmly believe that causes and conditions give rise to karmic imprints and results, I don’t think that it is fair to assume that if we are born into this world with a disability of some kind, that it is the result of an obscuration, negative imprint, or poor choices from past lives. I also don’t believe that able-bodied practitioners are more spiritually evolved than disabled practitioners.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with differently-abled, neurodivergent, and atypical students who were powerful, inspiring teachers for those of us who were able-bodied. They moved through the world in their own unique ways and witnessed the world from novel perspectives. Their differences were valid and valuable—and so were they—and, most importantly, their differences enhanced the lives of others.
My favorite quotation from Beckett’s talk was, “I love my body. It is my vehicle for liberation.”
In this powerful line, she is acknowledging, with confidence, that her life is, indeed, precious, and that despite any physical limitations, she, too, is capable of attaining enlightenment for the benefit of herself and others.
We all have gifts that we develop and bring to this world. It’s up to us to make the most of the life that we currently inhabit—to learn and grow in the best way that we can—and to be a source of support, encouragement, kindness, and compassion for ourselves and others.
Thanks for taking the time to read or listen to this month's blog article. Be sure to visit the current collection of Middle Moon Malas designs. Mother's Day is coming up soon--or, you may want to treat yourself or a loved one to a beautiful mala just because :).
Until next time...Take Care--
Photo Credit: David Troeger courtesy of Unsplash
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.
Taking Action and Responsibility for Your Own Practice April 30, 2021 10:52
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When I was a very young kid, my family moved into an apartment complex on the far east side of Indianapolis. Braeburn Village was a brand new complex in 1970, and we were one of its earliest tenants.
I was very curious and playful as a kid (as most kids are), and I would sometimes peer into the windows of the first floor apartments to see how other families lived. I was curious about what they were doing, how they spent their time, and, most importantly, what they were having for dinner.
Often, the windows revealed dark, empty kitchens, but since then, I have always been curious about how other people lived their lives. It was important for me to feel like I belonged.... and that I fit in.
I have long since abandoned peering into my neighbors' kitchen windows :), but this need to fit in, to feel connected and understood... well, that still lingers.
Even now, I can be easily influenced (and overly curious) about what others do--to the point that I question my own judgement and whether the way I choose to do things is OK. This tendency can be a blessing... and a curse.
Comparing myself to others, and then changing or adapting in order to accommodate can be unnecessary. It often hinders learning for me and can lead to great frustration and confusion. At other times, it can enhance the learning process, accentuate curiosity and play, and lead to discovery and more creative and innovative ways of doing things.
I've been studying the Tibetan language for a little more than a year. Because of COVID, my lessons have been online. I've been working with a wonderful teacher, who is originally from Lhasa, and one other student.
We've been using a textbook that is fairly advanced and not really ideal for new language learners, so from the very beginning, the weekly lessons were challenging. As we progressed more deeply into the text, the lessons became even more overwhelming and stressful for me.
I didn't think much about it at first since everything was new in the beginning. I expected some degree of confusion. Confusion, after all, is an important aspect of the learning process, and it can often be a motivator for discovery. However, as we made our way through the chapters, my confusion and frustration escalated, rather than subsided. The information in the text was daunting to me, and it lacked clear explanations and adequate exercises for practice.
Unfortunately, my need to fit in, belong, and stay caught up pushed me to continue. It would take me hours to complete the short, weekly exercises, and, worst of all, nothing was sticking. I wasn't retaining the information from week to week. This drinking-from-a-firehose technique of learning was NOT working for me, and it was crushing my curiosity, playfulness, and motivation to learn this beautiful language.
My fellow classmate, however, LOVES this book. He enjoys sifting through mounds of information and was even pushing to move even faster through the text.
My need to keep up and my tendency to accommodate others hit a wall in the middle of Chapter 5. I reached out to two friends for additional resource suggestions. One is a professor of Tibetan Studies; the other is a translator for a Tibetan lama in Canada. Both recommended additional texts that might be helpful for me.
I also reached out to my Tibetan teacher and asked if she could work with me individually. She agreed that the book we were using was too advanced (for both me and my fellow student) and agreed to work with me on another day of the week.
By taking action and responsibility for my own learning, I have a renewed sense of commitment, curiosity, and motivation. I'm honoring what works for me, and I'm looking forward to slowing down and focusing on just a couple of concepts at a time--and taking more time to practice, play, and explore with those concepts before adding additional information.
In this case, "keeping up" was NOT helping; it was actually hindering my progress. It was also sabotaging my motivation and mental health.
The new books my friends recommended have arrived this week. I'm looking forward to diving in and exploring them on my own terms and in my own way. I'm also looking forward to the one-on-one sessions with my teacher soon.
Sometimes, however, examining a subject from a different perspective can be inspiring--and can even ENHANCE one's practice.
Recently, I've joined an online book group. We are reading Lama Rod Owens' Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger.
We meet twice a month and discuss a few chapters at a time.
Last week, we discussed Chapter 4, which includes detailed descriptions of several personal meditation practices that Lama Rod incorporates regularly in his own practice.
I appreciated that he took the time to carefully outline and explain each step of each practice.
He explained each part of the practices by including examples, and he also followed up each with a brief outline. Lama Rod carefully explained at least a dozen specific practices in this chapter.
I found these detailed descriptions to be extremely useful, and I even had time to explore and play with a couple of them before we had our most recent book club meeting. His explanations have enhanced my own personal meditation practice.
Ironically, during our online discussion, a few members of the group found this chapter to be daunting and overwhelming: "TMI for one chapter."
They wondered if Lama Rod could have mentioned one practice at at time--maybe dedicating one chapter to each practice rather than cramming all twelve into one chapter.
This made me think of my online Tibetan class, and my classmate who loved the TMI text--but my frustration with it.
Although, compared to the Tibetan text, Chapter 4 in Lama Rod's book was nothing in terms of being too confusing or overwhelming :) !
I didn't feel compelled to try ALL of the practices, and the ones he outlined weren't linear. In other words, I didn't have to practice the first one before experimenting with the second one, etc.
I read through the chapter, picked a couple to explore, and enjoyed the practices as a result.
I may not need to take the time to explore the remaining practices. I took what I needed and moved on.
Learning has always been an important part of my life, and everyone learns in a different way. Trying to fit into someone else's learning style or educational paradigm is NOT a good thing.
Learning to honor my OWN path and to follow what fascinates and nourishes me has been a lifelong journey, too, just as honoring what fascinates and nourishes others--giving them the space to explore their own path is just as valuable and important.
At this point, I'm back on track. I'm curious, playful, and motivated about continuing to learn Tibetan in a way that resonates with me. I'm also fascinated about bringing fresh awareness into my personal meditation practice by learning more about what works for Lama Rod and the other members of my book club group.
Peering into my neighbors' kitchen windows when I was a kid has been a helpful and humorous metaphor for gauging if it's appropriate to follow along with others, abdicating my own viewpoint (and power) in the process. However, that's not always the best approach. Learning to observe, listen, and trust myself, to take responsibility and action for what fosters and nourishes my own curiosity has been an even more powerful life lesson.
This process turns the kitchen window metaphor around for me, and it involves paying closer attention to what's happening in my own "kitchen," appreciating that it, too, has value, worth, and the potential to nourish. Viewing the world through this lens (or window) allows me to acknowledge and appreciate my own perspective, and it also allows me to observe what's happening in the outer world while simultaneously maintaining a sense of connection, belonging, and understanding.
While you're here, I invite you to check out the current Middle Moon Malas online collection. Several new designs have been added to the online shop. These one-of-a-kind designs are made with love and care, and they're intended to enhance your meditation, movement, and wellness practices.
A Beautiful Tangle: Sitting with Confusion August 5, 2020 15:18
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We are living in a time when we have have many opportunities to explore our relationship with confusion. We're navigating the uncertainties of our own daily lives in the middle of a global pandemic. Some of us are working from home, some are seeking new employment, some are struggling to keep food on the table or to pay bills, and we're all trying to stay safe and healthy during this challenging time.
We're also dealing with the upheaval of social protests and finally facing the consequences of systemic racism in order to move toward necessary and meaningful change.
We're gearing up for a pivotal election in November. It's certainly been a long 3 ½ years, and unfortunately, our struggles are far from over.
Confusion gives us the space to explore, to experiment with different solutions, to ask questions, and to research. Sitting with confusion is not always easy or comfortable, but it is imperative to novel discovery and learning.
Sitting with confusion requires patience, like untangling a massive knot. Confusion IS a beautiful tangle. When you have the courage to sit with it, without expectation, without judgment, it can lead to surprising revelations and profound wisdom.
Over the past several months, I have immersed myself in studying the Tibetan language. Progress is painstakingly slow, but learning new things is great for the brain. It broadens viewpoints and perspectives; it fosters creativity and curiosity; and it has given me many opportunities to practice with confusion.
* The Importance of Feeling Stupid
Early on in my studies, I was working with two Tibetan tutors online, additional materials from the Tibetan Language Institute based in Montana, The Manual of Standard Tibetan, and a variety of YouTube videos. Inevitably, I found conflicting information, especially regarding pronunciation (there are 220 Tibetan dialects). In the beginning, having too many sources was overwhelming for me, and it just made me feel incredibly stupid and inept. Navigating contradictory information created massive confusion and self-doubt. However, I found that by sticking with my tutors until I mastered the alphabet and basic sentence structure helped me negotiate the rough waters of hopeless confusion.
Curiosity is a motivator, and it is often driven by productive confusion. This curiosity led me to ask questions, to take my time practicing and writing out each letter, to make flash cards of simple words, numbers, and phrases. It also helped me weave my way out of self-doubt and discouragement, to seek understanding while simultaneously moving beyond the realm of the familiar.
I found out the hard way that I need to study in small bursts of time rather than in lengthy marathon sessions.
A few weeks ago, one of my sessions with a tutor went way over time (over 2 hours), and by the end of the session, I was discouraged, frustrated, angry, and more confused at the end than I was at the start.
Hour-long sessions are ideal for me. I can deal with 90 minute sessions, too, but anything beyond that is too much. Setting clear boundaries with my tutor regarding time limits proved to be very helpful.
Even when I study on my own, I find that daily sessions of 15-30 minutes is just right. Finding that tipping point where productive confusion slips into hopeless confusion was useful for me. It helped me to stay focused and engaged, and it helped to avoid sabotaging my own practice.
*The Importance of Rest
Taking breaks and resting between sessions is also crucial to learning anything new and managing the discomfort of confusion.
I already understood this from a somatic perspective. In Feldenkrais lessons, we move slowly and repeat movements with thoughtful, mindful attention. Between movements, or before layering movements with variations on a theme, we rest.
The rests function as points of integration. These necessary pauses allow the nervous system to process information.
It's the same with learning a language, or anything new, really. I found that if I spent a few minutes reviewing words on flash cards, then took a break to read, go for a walk, wash dishes, or nap--when I returned to review the same set of cards, my accuracy, speed, and retention were much improved.
*Letting Go of Expectation
The most important aspect of managing confusion while learning is to let go of expectations and judgments. This is also much easier said than done :).
Putting too much pressure on myself when I'm learning something new only invites the inner critic to tear my enthusiasm and self-esteem to shreds. Sessions that don't have an agenda or specific expectation (I'm going to memorize all the vegetables in Tibetan in 15 minutes) allow me to enjoy the exploration and discovery process. These sessions are more playful and relaxed compared to pressure-cooker sessions where I'm striving, pushing, or rushing myself. There is more ease in the effort, and the cognitive connections are stronger and more relevant.
In addition to learning something new, I'm also reinforcing the importance of being patient and compassionate with myself. And, in turn, this carries over to being more patient and compassionate with others, as well.
* What the Heck Does This Have to Do with Meditation and Japa Practice?
Well, pretty much everything! When we come to the cushion to sit or practice japa, we learn something new about ourselves or how to relate to others in the world.
The same tips above apply to maintaining a healthy meditation practice. Confusion surfaces regularly during sessions--maybe not in the same way as they do in learning a new language. Confusion appears in finding difficulty settling in to practice. Distractions arise--both internal and external (discursive thoughts, memories, random song lyrics or commercial jingles, a ringing phone, the sound of a television in another room, your partner or spouse talking to you while you're trying to practice: "It smells like you're burning underwear").
So, things will come up during meditation. Don't let that discourage you. Instead, find time every day to practice, even if it's ten minutes.
Every meditation session will be different, so don't micromanage or squelch your practice with a specific expectation or agenda. Instead, have the courage to explore whatever arises at that time, and in that moment.
Take breaks between sessions if you meditate more than once a day. Ideally, I like to practice three times a day. I have a short sadhana session in the morning, a japa practice in the afternoon, and then a longer sadhana session in the evening.
Remember that productive confusion is a necessary part of the learning process. It stimulates curiosity, it encourages inquiry, and it opens new doorways to awareness and understanding.
Be curious, be open, and give yourself permission to sit with confusion in your practice. Invite it to tea without an ulterior motive. Follow its loops, twists, arcs, and jagged edges to see where it might lead you.
Happy practicing and learning, everyone!
By the way, I've added several new mala designs to the MMM website recently, so if you haven't visited in a while, I invite you to view the online collection at middlemoonmalas.com.