Sudden Storms: Navigating Whirlwinds of Change with Daily Practice July 28, 2023 17:10
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE for the audio link.
“O, I have suffered with those that I saw suffer.”
Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest
This summer has been a whirlwind of activity—literally and figuratively. In late June, a pop-up tornado ripped through our neighborhood. It uprooted giant trees, tore off roofs, obliterated detached garages, barns, and fences.
We weren’t given much warning that it was coming. Storm sirens in our area had sounded earlier in the afternoon, but had stopped. It wasn’t raining or hailing at the time, and television meteorologists were focusing on areas to the north and south of us.
The first indication that something wasn’t quite right was our cable went out, and our TVs were blasting loud static on snowy screens. I was going upstairs to turn off the TV when Jim yelled from downstairs, “Get down here, NOW!”
I looked up at the skylight in time to see limbs of trees blowing sideways.
I hurried downstairs, closed the front door, and headed toward the bathroom in the interior hall. By the time I’d reached the bathroom, the storm had already blown past us, and we stepped outside to assess the damage.
Fortunately, our damage was minimal. We lost a cherry tree that had fallen across our driveway and some large limbs from a walnut tree in the backyard. We also had debris from various neighbors’ properties strewn all over our yard. Our house was intact; our barn was not damaged; our two big oak trees had not fallen over (and I was very grateful for that).
However, nearby telephone poles and lines were down. One pole had broken in half and was lying across a two-lane street at an odd, unstable angle. I thought it would be days before our power would be restored, but within eighteen hours, the power was back up and running.
Our neighbors behind us lost three vehicles due to fallen trees. Our neighbor to the south of us lost every single tree standing in his backyard. The damage all around us was devastating, and our community sustained a tremendous amount of damage in the span of 90 seconds. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, thank goodness.
Jim cut up the cherry tree that had fallen across our driveway with a chainsaw, and then he went to our neighbor’s house to help with their roof.
Neighbors helped us pull their mangled trampoline out of our pine trees, and all of us spent hours picking up limbs, sticks, and branches, carting them into burn piles or dragging them to the ends of driveways for pickup.
This storm was so unexpected and fast-moving, we didn’t have time to be scared.
Neighbors did make time to come out and help each other, asking if everyone was OK.
While Jim was helping out our neighbor with his roof, I picked up sticks, branches, and debris in our yard, and used it as an opportunity for practice.
I chanted, “Om Mani Padme Hum” for hours while I worked. I thought about our neighbors who has sustained far more damage than we had—who lost beautiful trees, who sustained roof damage, broken windows, crushed vehicles, mangled fences, garages, and barns.
I picked up sticks and branches, whispering, “Om Mani Padme Hum.”
Coiled springs from our neighbor’s trampoline—“Om Mani Padme Hum.”
Shingles from a nearby barn—“Om Mani Padme Hum.”
A book cover (Love Story) from someone’s patio table—“Om Mani Padme Hum.”
Arm floaties and bits of pool noodles—“Om Mani Padme Hum.”
Pieces of plastic and siding scraps—“Om Mani Padme Hum.”
We worked for hours, each of us doing our part to clean up the debris and patch things up in the best way we knew how.
We eventually settled into our dark, quiet homes, some of us with candles and flashlights, a few of us with generators.
We rested…and waited for morning.
I’m not going to lie, I had trouble sleeping that night. My body was tired and sore, and my mind was racing with “what if” scenarios—a post traumatic response and an indication of a dysregulated nervous system.
Another opportunity to practice had presented itself. This time, I mentally recited “The Heart Sutra” in Sanskrit (see below for video link).* It’s something I practice daily, whether there’s a tornado or not. It took me three years to memorize it, and about seven minutes to recite it each day. It’s an important part of my practice, and I’m really glad I took the time to commit it to memory. In this instance, it really helped me to calm down and relax the tight muscles in my jaw, shoulders, back, and legs.
I was also able to steady my restless thoughts and drift off to sleep. Our house was so dark and quiet. The stillness and this practice helped me find much-needed relief.
This is one of the most useful benefits of a daily mantra practice, and I don’t have to be sitting on a cushion or holding a mala for it to be effective. In this case, I was moving slowly around the yard, sweaty, dirty, and sticky from picking up sticks and debris in the heat. I had been focused on what was right in front of me—this stick—this branch—this broken board, etc. On a daily basis, these recitations keep me grounded and prevent me from spiraling into my own storm clouds of “what if” and worry. This practice offers the comfort of “do what you can…from right where you are.”
As I’m writing this today, it has been a month since this storm blew through our neighborhood.
Today, I can hear the sounds of cicada songs, lawn mowers, along with the echoes of hammering from roofers replacing shingles on nearby homes.
Trees have been cut down and cleared away. Small, brightly-colored flags in yards mark where new fence posts will be installed. Many of us have very different views from our porches, patios, and driveways. We can see more of the sky and more of each other’s homes.
I still pick up small bits of debris—pieces of tarp or scraps of shingles—as I walk down our long driveway to get the mail.
Each piece is a reminder of what we endured—and they are also reminders for us to be kind, to be tender with each other.
We all weather storms of various kinds and with varying degrees of severity. Some are visible and create tangible damage; others are hidden and create emotional chaos.
Regardless, this experience has reinforced that finding time to practice daily (before an emergency strikes) not only helps me to regulate my nervous system when obstacles do arise, it also reminds me of the importance to be compassionate toward others--to be aware of the suffering of others—to offer empathy and aid whenever possible—and to be grateful for this precious life.
I hope you are happy and well—and staying cool in this blistering summer heat. If you haven’t viewed the current collection of malas and quarter malas in a while, I invite you to click the Middle Moon Malas link here to see what’s new or what might speak to you in order to support and inspire your own practice.
* Here's the link to "The Heart Sutra" video that I listened to many, many times until I finally memorized it. Vidhya Rao has a lovely voice, and listening to it may benefit your practice, too.
Photo credit: Egor Yakushkin courtesy of Unsplash
Why Are You Chanting, Seriously? April 7, 2019 20:36
I spend an hour every day chanting mantra. I begin my day by practicing a short sadhana and use a quarter mala to mark the twenty-seven recitations in the morning. Then, later in the day, usually in the afternoon or early evening, I chant using a full mala (108 beads).
WHY? There are so many other things that I could do with this hour every day. I could watch something on Netflix or YouTube. I could sleep in for an extra hour, or take a nap in the afternoon. I could feed my brain with information and read a compelling article or blog. I could take a long walk. I could declutter and organize my kitchen cabinets or volunteer at an animal shelter or soup kitchen. Why would I choose to spend this time chanting Sanskrit mantra?
These are reasonable questions. For the last five years I have practiced japa on the daily, and given the choices listed above, I’d rather continue to invest the time practicing mantra recitations, and here’s why…
- “Mantra’s nature is to protect the mind from negativity.” Ven. Lozang Yӧnten
Unsupervised, I am prone to worry and restless anxiety. Driving, for example, can be a trigger for me. If traffic is heavy, or delayed by construction, if I’m concerned about being late, or if an unexpected warning light suddenly appears on my dash board, I can go from focused and alert to tense and frazzled in .02 seconds.
When these unexpected surprises occur, I find that reaching for the clicker counter that I keep in the closest cup holder and chanting while I’m on the road helps to keep me calm, relaxed, and focused, and it also prevents me from spinning out into a vortex of nervous loops of spazziness. Chanting keeps me grounded, present in the here and now, and prevents the infinite “what if” scenarios from taking over—it keeps me moving forward, even if I’m at a standstill in traffic.
- “By practicing mantra, we can drive our awareness deeper into the bones, muscles and tissues of the body to gain a greater sensitivity and understanding of our makeup and amplify the emotional energies latent within, much like the potential energy present in mountains that then becomes kinetic in the form of an avalanche when the earth quakes.” Gabriel Axel (“Your Brain on Om: The Science of Mantra, U.S. News and World Report , 2 Oct 2013)
In other words, a mantra practice can recalibrate the body and the mind, motivating us to reflect and improve. Managing transitions is not one of my strong suits. When I come home from work, for example, I’m energetically exhausted and disoriented. I’ve entered that awkward bardo state between busyness and rest, from structured time to unstructured time, and japa practice can act as a helpful buffer. When I sit on my cushion for formal practice, chanting mantra helps me navigate the change of environment and gives me permission to let go of the need to accomplish tasks. If I chant soon after coming home from school, I’m less likely to either go into Type A taskmaster mode (doing laundry, dishes, making dinner, or creating more items on the “to do” list) or self-soothing by taking refuge in junk food.
Sitting for thirty to forty minutes in the afternoon gives me an opportunity to process the events of the day, to relax, release, and ease into my evening. I feel more present and embodied.
However, if I wait too late in the evening to practice, I grow tired and impatient, and my mind is too fuzzy or groggy to benefit from the practice. Late afternoon to early evening is ideal for me—it creates a smooth transition from Do-Do-Do to Be-Be-Be.
- “By allowing the mind to be permeated with compassion, you become one who upholds the integrity and purity of the practice. This, itself, is the key to liberating all sentient beings.” H.E. Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche
This chanting practice is not just about me, and it doesn’t simply benefit myself. It can help others, too. The sadhana and mantra that I work with are part of a specific purification practice. Through it, I resolve to relinquish negative habits of mind and tendencies that harm myself and others. I acknowledge, regret, and affirm not to continue these thoughts, actions, or habits that have the potential to cause harm (i.e. judging others harshly, being snippy or snarky with people when I’m impatient, spending money on things I don’t need, laziness, arrogance, etc.). There’s a visualization component to this practice—and mantra recitation is at the heart of this practice as well. By actively and consciously acknowledging these habits and traits—and taking steps to cease, desist, and purify them, I am not only improving my own life, but making the world more tolerable for people who happen to be around me.
Outside of the purification practice, sometimes I will dedicate a round of mantra recitations to someone who is suffering (friend or stranger), or to a challenging situation or conflict (local or global). Chanting in this context becomes an offering and an act of compassion for others, and there’s never a shortage of subject matter since suffering and turmoil are ubiquitous. The mantra can be short and sweet—it doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. Om Mani Padme Hum is just one example. What matters most is the intention behind the chanting practice, and the genuine focus and attention to the practice.
While watching Netflix or scrolling through Facebook may provide mindless entertainment and endless opportunities for distraction, mantra practice can actually improve focus, keep the monsters of attachment at bay, and help foster genuine compassion for others.