Climbing Mt. Kailash...One Tibetan Letter at a Time February 10, 2020 18:53
"To learn is an act of deep work." Cal Newport (associate professor of Computer Science, Georgetown University)
Some of the best opportunities that have occurred in my life were not the result of calculated planning, but out of being open, curious, and willing to explore the unknown.
Five years ago, I fell into designing malas and then building a small business (Middle Moon Malas) through this creative interest and a love of japa practice.
Two years ago, I discovered The Feldenkrais Method as well as other alternative movement modalities, and my physical, emotional, and spiritual health flourished as a result.
Two weeks ago, I landed, unexpectedly, in a small class that my dharma teacher is leading between his weekly dharma talks and prayer sessions on Sundays. I'm one of a handful of students studying Tibetan.
Learning a new language in my mid-fifties is much more challenging (and enriching) than when I was studying French in junior high school. The Tibetan alphabet is totally different from English, and several of the sounds are very similar, with subtle, nuanced distinctions. Therefore, the learning requires more time, deliberate care, practice, and patience.
It turns out, there are several benefits to learning a language later in life. It can improve problem-solving, critical thinking, listening, decision-making, and concentration skills. Learning a new language can also stave off dementia, mental aging, and cognitive decline. It also fosters deeper connections and appreciation of other cultures.
I found out about this class a few weeks in, so I'm a little behind and scrambling to catch up. I gave myself a week to learn the Tibetan alphabet--30 consonants, 4 vowels. That doesn't seem too demanding, right?
Turns out, I needed the full week. I spent about an hour each day learning and reciting the sounds of each new letter, tracing unfamiliar curves, arcs, and loops onto graph paper. I flipped through flash cards again and again, and I watched several YouTube tutorials in order to recognize, memorize, speak, and write these beautiful new letters that are like keys to a mysterious puzzle.
I barely deciphered the Tibetan alphabet in time for the following week's class. We're moving on to numbers and combining letters into words, which is an even deeper mystery for me.
I feel like I'm climbing Mt. Kailash, one Tibetan letter at a time. Thankfully, I'm not alone on this journey. I have a knowledgeable leader, a team of peers, and additional resources to guide me along the way. Most importantly, I'm enjoying the process. It's definitely challenging, but I'm benefiting from it a great deal.
I'm learning much more than a new language. I'm learning the value of maintaining Beginner's Mind. I'm learning the importance of being gentle and patient with myself (and others) as I navigate this new adventure. I'm learning the importance of moving slowly, deliberately, and without force. I'm learning that this new endeavor is intricately connected to my movement, meditation, and japa practices. Most importantly, though, I'm rediscovering that...
"Learning should be a pleasant, marvelous experience." Moshé Feldenkrais
Beauty...Beads...Breath: Practical Alternatives to a Chanting Practice October 5, 2017 19:43
I have a friend who loves malas, and she's purchased several Middle Moon Malas and requested various custom designs; however, she's not big on chanting. She recently asked me if chanting mantras was required. She was concerned that she was misusing her malas by not incorporating a japa or chanting practice. My response--absolutely not, and I offered her the following simple alternatives.
* Setting an Intention
Setting an intention or offering a dedication at the start of a yoga class can add even more meaning and significance to the practice. Similarly, setting an intention before donning a mala can be a powerful part of a yoga or meditation practice. It can serve as a meaningful reminder throughout the day, and it can help bring your meditation or mindfulness practice from the cushion or mat into your daily life.
Let's say you set an intention to be more present, more focused on the here and now. Each time you catch a glimpse of the beads around your neck or resting on the corner of your mat, each time you feel the beads against your skin or feel the weight of the mala as it shifts and moves across your body, as you shift and move throughout your day, these all serve as reminders of your intention. Be here. Be present. Be aware of this moment.
My intention with Middle Moon Malas has always been to create designs that are both functional and beautiful. Many of my customers tell me that they frequently receive compliments on their unique designs. Each compliment, each inquiry can also be reminders--be present--be here--be in this moment. No chanting necessary.
*Working with Breath
Another alternative to chanting is to incorporate a breath practice. Variety is important and valuable to just about anything in life. Just as practicing the same physical poses over and over can lead to repetitive stress and injury, mindlessly chanting the same mantra can lead to boredom and lack of focus.
There are no benefits to simply repeating or chanting a mantra--sharp focus and clarity of mind are essential to any meditation practice. Sometimes it's good to shake things up and add something different to the practice.
While I do have a daily recitation practice, sometimes I'll sit with my mala and let the breath be my focus. My right hand thumb and second finger on the first bead next to the guru, I take a long, slow inhalation. At the peak of the inhale, my fingers slide to the second bead, and I release a long, slow exhalation. One inhale, one exhale at a time, shifting to the next bead during the pauses between breaths. Again, no mantra, no chanting required. The breath becomes the focal point--the beads become tactile and visual reminders to remain present. Each sustains the other--to remain present--to breathe--and to be.
As with any practice, it's important to do what resonates with you. If chanting works for you, great! If not, great! You have options and choices. The important point is to cultivate a meaningful practice that is beneficial to you and that works for you.
The Benefits of Keeping a Spiritual Journal June 3, 2017 15:17
Over the years, I’ve kept various types of journals and logs. For the past three years, I’ve been keeping track of my japa practice in small, portable notebooks.
Though I’ve been pretty diligent about writing in these logs, I am horrible about taking the time to read over the entries (they’re more like lists, really) to reflect on what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown as a practitioner. Being in the present moment and recording the present moment is one thing—but taking the time to look over a year of present moments to note tendencies and patterns is a really daunting task. Honestly, I thought I might be bored out of my mind—many of my daily observations are really mundane and repetitious, but I did manage to find a few nuggets of wisdom among the pages.
*THE REPETITIOUS AND MUNDANE ARE EVIDENCE OF DEDICATION
8.12.16 “Chanted with the Olympics on mute.”
12.26.16 “Practiced yoga for over an hour to tango music in the living room.”
1.4.17 “Chanted before Yin—then watched Portlandia after class.”
Countless entries made reference to the practice—the yoga practice—the chanting practice—the meditation practice. Regardless of the day, the time, the location, or the circumstances, the practice was the hub, and the driving force of these entries. Practice requires commitment and dedication, and these entries, while repetitive, were solid proof of this resolve. Taking the time to reread them has bolstered my desire to continue all of these practices, including the writing practice.
*CELEBRATE JOYFUL MOMENTS (BIG AND SMALL)
10.1.16 “Jim and I attended a wedding (apprentice from the shop). The groomsmen had superhero action figures in their shirt pockets.”
10.15.16 “Took a photo of the full Hunter’s Moon as Hugo kept me company out in the yard.”
11.21.16 “Prajnaparamita arrived today. She’s beautiful.”
1.20.17 “Received a handmade card from a nun I’m sponsoring in India. Venerable Tsundue Palmo. She’s 12.”
There were several unexpected surprises hidden among the ordinary entries. Some of these nuggets of joy I had forgotten about; others, I remembered vividly. Reading these entries was a lot like looking over photos in an old album. The brief notations and descriptions were like faded photographs, but they were clear enough to trigger these pleasant memories so that I could enjoy them again.
* DISAPPOINTMENTS AND TRAGEDIES ARE OPPORTUNITIES FOR GROWTH
1.23.17 “This lifetime is like a flash of lightning. Be hard on your delusions, not on yourself.”
2.10.17 “Went to Mike’s funeral. Jim did such a fabulous job. He spoke at the service—honest, sincere, tearful, funny. So proud of him. What a sendoff!”
4.3.17 “Hugo was really struggling this morning. Jim and I took him to the vet in the back of my car. Elise met us there. We said goodbye as a family.”
Just as there were many moments of joy—this year also brought challenging moments as well. Sadness, anger, despair, grief, and doubt were opportunities to implement the practice in order to heal and grow. This is where all of those mundane moments really paid off. I needed the help of all of the practices in order to allow and be, to sit patiently with these intense emotions until the storm surges settled. Taking time to remember and acknowledge these moments gave me an opportunity to appreciate what I have endured, and to value each fleeting present moment even more.
*TRUST… RIGHT PEOPLE, RIGHT PLACES, RIGHT TIMES
6.25.16 “Love and compassion are the keys to happiness, not money, power, and things.” HH Dalai Lama Lecture at State Fairgrounds
8.27.16 “Attended Teaching—Had lunch with sangha—watermelon slices with Geshe Kunga and Ten Pa. Stayed for afternoon prayers—Rinpoche blessed Josie’s mala—Green Tara—Heart Sutra—Lovely.”
11.2.16 “The Cubs haven’t won a World Series in 108 years. There are 108 laces on a baseball. Just strung the 108th bead on a Kumbaba Jasper mala—sending much love and light out to the Cubs.”
Every cell in my body resonates to the frequency of the belief that the right people and events will come into your life when they’re supposed to, and they’ll leave when they’re supposed to. I’m all about right place, right time, and this year was no exception. Whether it was listening to The Dalai Lama deliver a live lecture in Indianapolis, chatting with dear friends, working with students, discovering the right book, documentary, YouTube tutorial, or movie at just the right time, the best lessons and teachers have arrived at the perfect time and in the best way. I know that as long as I continue to practice—to sit, to chant, to breathe, to write, to step onto the mat, to be present…I will continue to learn, grow, and blossom, and, with a little luck, benefit others along the way.
Honoring Those Who Have Come before You June 1, 2016 08:00
My introduction to a meditation practice was not dramatic, by any means. My japa roots are humble ones; I fell into this practice by a combination of happenstance, intuition, and luck. I didn’t have a guru or a spiritual teacher to show me the way. My spiritual teachers were found mainly in books and Sounds True courses on cassette tapes (later CDs): Louise Hay, Alan Watts, Marianne Williamson, Eckhart Tolle, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Don Miguel Ruiz, Caroline Myss, and Carl Jung. Each book, each lecture was like an individual bead on a sutra—one following the other—each one connected and interconnected—leading me to exactly where I was meant to go…and be.
I started to meditate when I was pregnant with my daughter, Elise. At the time, I was naïve enough to think that meditation would help me transcend the pain of childbirth. I never dreamed that it would become a lifelong habit that would help me navigate the joys and challenges of life, and that it would become an absolute necessity for the demands of parenthood.
In the winter of 1994, I made weekly trips to a small home in Broad Ripple that had been converted into a meditation center. I remember our shoes lined up in neat rows by the door, the faint smell of jasmine incense, sunlight streaming through partially opened blinds, and that purple maternity Barneyesque sweat suit that I wore (It was the only thing comfortable enough for me to sit and meditate in). I was full of hope and purpose, and I was eager to welcome a new life as well as a new practice into my own life.
I persisted, sitting every evening in front of a small votive candle on the floor of my daughter’s freshly-painted nursery. After she was born, sitting in meditation became more sporadic, but it still happened—and life also happened. However, I found new teachers to lead the way—poets, this time: Li-Young Lee, Jane Hirschfield, Gary Snyder, Dorianne Laux, Ted Kooser, Rita Dove, Charles Simic, Rumi, Dōgen…
I bought my first mala before I knew what it was for—or how to use it. I knew they were sacred, like the rosaries I had seen my mother and grandmother use, and I knew that they were connected to meditation and spiritual practices, but that was all. I was drawn to the black specks on the creamy white bodhi seeds—a Moon and Stars Mala. It called to me, and I answered. For a long time, I kept it in my home office; it shared space on a table with a small candle and a statue of Kwan Yin. I liked the feel of the seeds between my fingers—and sometimes I wore it to school.
Eventually, all of the pieces of the puzzle came together with the help of many more teachers. This time, real-live human beings were coming into my life to enhance my practice, and I was very grateful for their arrival. I was able to link my meditation, yoga, and mantra practices together, integrating body, mind, and spirit.
What started as naïve curiosity had blossomed and deepened into a sincere, heart-driven practice and a desire to share this practice with others. I love creating and designing custom malas for others, never forgetting how my own practice began, and honoring the teachers (literary and real-life) who helped me along the way. My meditation practice started before I gave birth to my daughter, but what I didn’t realize is that, all along, this practice was helping me awaken, helping me realize my potential, and helping me serve others in a meaningful way.
From Rut to Groove: Diving Deeply into the Heart of a Mantra Practice May 10, 2016 12:27
Repeating a mantra is like chanting the rhythm of your own heart. A mantra practice is a journey that spirals inward to the center of your capital “S” self. According to the Zen master Huang Po, our true nature “shines through the whole universe.” It is our “all-pervading radiant beauty,” and a regular mantra practice can be a vehicle to access and appreciate that shimmering, radiant beauty at the heart of the Self.
I’ve been exploring the adventures of a regular mantra practice for nearly two years. I’ve embarked on various forty-day sadhanas with different mantras—logging patterns, side-effects, and reactions much like an anthropologist or biologist in the field jots down notes and observations. After several months, I’ve finally hit a wall. Granted, my life has picked up momentum—I’ve grown busier with “have to’s” and domestic obligations. I have bills to pay, classes to teach, workshops to take, malas to create, yada, yada, yada.
Last night I found myself hurrying to complete a round of the long version of the Gayatri so I wouldn’t miss the opening scene of Penny Dreadful. That’s pretty bad (on many levels). When my mantra practice becomes another item on my checklist to complete, I know it’s time to make a change.
In the midst of managing the distractions and obstacles that life is hurling my way, I’d grown weary and bored with chanting, and my practice had become stale and mechanical as a result. Fortunately, a mantra practice is not a hindrance; it’s designed to help us navigate life’s challenging, murky waters.
My resistance is an indication that I’m ready to dive more deeply. At the surface, a mantra practice is the parrot-like recitation of spiritual formulas—the memorization of Sanskrit words—the tactile sensations of beads sliding between finger and thumb. However, this is just the surface—there is much more waiting to be discovered at the heart of the practice and within the heart of the Self.
Boredom, anger, and restlessness had settled into my practice —and while it’s easy to blame the busyness of my life, I know that’s not entirely true. It’s time to start listening to my heart—to begin to pay attention—to really pay attention to what I’m feeling—to be patient—to sit with those feelings–to allow them to surface—without judgment—without repressing them—to hold space for my heart to speak—to make time to listen and to honor its messages.
For now, I’ve suspended the forty-day sadhana experiments with supplemental mantras. I’m focusing my attention solely on the long Gayatri—rededicating—recommitting to my practice—but I’m also refining my intention and attention. I’m not simply reciting words and counting beads. I’m listening to my heart, I’m reconnecting to this practice, I’m trusting that it will take me where I am supposed to go, and I’m diving deeper, escaping the rut and plunging into the groove.
The Subtle Side-Effects of a Chanting Practice March 2, 2016 15:00
Everything we are, and everything that is, is vibration. All sentient beings and all inanimate objects in the cosmos are teeming expressions of vibrational flow. When this flow is disturbed or disrupted, disharmony is the result. A mantra or chanting practice can help restore harmony and balance again by kneading the cells of the body with sound. One of the best ways to recalibrate and reboot your own system is through a regular practice of chanting Sanskrit mantra.
I've been practicing forty-day sadhanas with various mantras over the course of the last two years, and upon reflecting on this practice, I've noticed some interesting side-effects.
* Increased Presence
I'm finding it's much easier to stay in the present moment. This can be both a blessing and a curse. For example, I'm not writing nearly as many lists on Post-it notes, and I'm not as caught up in the trance of future thinking--the endless streams of "I have to do this," and "I have to do that," etc.
However, I'm finding that I immerse myself completely in the most mundane tasks. I'm totally engaged in loading the dishwasher or flossing my teeth, and time slips away from me. Last week, I spent twenty minutes in the produce section at Target--totally mesmerized by the colors, shapes, and smells of fruits and veggies, as if it were an art exhibit at the IMA.
*Managing Difficult Emotions
When anger, frustration, fear, resentment, and general crankiness rise to the surface, I'm able to stay with these unpleasant feelings for longer periods of time without casting judgment or pushing them away. I can sit (stand, walk, or drive) with them with an objective heart and mind--simply noticing and holding space for these feelings--until they dissipate on their own.
This morning as I was driving to school, a man in an old pick-up truck tailgated me all the way down Morgantown Rd. Every time I glanced in my rear view mirror, he made various aggressive hand gestures, clearly indicating his disapproval of me driving the speed limit. Instead of responding with equal and opposite frustration, though, I remained calm and focused, and when he barreled past me across the double line, I didn't take it personally, and I didn't feel the need to speed up and chase after him, which is evidence of significant growth for me.
*New Teachers and Adventures
One of the most pleasant side-effects of my mantra practice is that it has been sending new teachers and adventures my way. I've met amazingly creative,supportive,and nourishing people outside my usual circles who have helped me learn and grow in so many ways. They've helped me stretch beyond my comfort zones, offering guidance and encouragement at just the right time.
For a long time, I've wanted to visit the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana, and in the last few months, I've visited several times, attending various pujas, lectures, and events there.The monks have been very kind and warm-hearted, and their welcoming and open spirits have been both inspirational and refreshing.
In addition to honoring the Divine that dwells within, I've found that the heart of a regular mantra practice also includes elevating your vibrational frequencies. Each forty-day sadhana brings new experiences and insights, and each spiritual formula has its own unique lessons to teach. I'm looking forward to exploring the treasures that dwell in the next Sanskrit mantra.
The Perks of Completing a Forty-Day Mantra Sadhana September 12, 2015 17:04
I recently completed a forty-day mantra practice. My intention was to invite more abundance into my life, so I chose Om Shrim Maha Lakshmiyei Swaha. I chanted daily, sometimes with, and sometimes without, my mala, I sang this mantra in the car while I was driving to work, and I even wrote it down repeatedly in a small notebook. I also kept observational notes in a separate notebook, and at the end of the forty days, I reflected on what I had experienced and learned.
Here are some highlights:
* While driving, I kept noticing chocolate brown cars (all different makes and models) while I chanted. I don't use my mala while driving--it's too distracting for me, but the beads on the mala that I used for this sadhana are chocolate brown. (I'm embarrassed to say it took me a week to make this connection, but I eventually sorted it out :).
* I didn't win the lottery, but I won a few free tickets, and I found a quarter on the sidewalk. One of the biggest lessons I learned from this practice is that abundance is not limited to finances.
*I had amazingly vivid and powerful dream images during this time period. Not only were they visually captivating, they were also instructive pieces of relevant guidance.
* I spent an amazing day at a Buddhist center in Bloomington with a dear friend. The ceremony was beautiful, the catered food was delicious, and, at the end of the retreat, a posse of Tibetan monks blessed my mala.
*Books found me--the right books, at just the right time--Tosha Silver's Change Me Prayers, Tara Brach's Radical Acceptance and True Refuge, Bruce Lipton's The Biology of Belief. An abundance of wisdom took hold.
*My discoveries and revelations, however, were not always positive. Similar to an asana practice, a mantra practice can stir up da shit. Unresolved issues with friends and colleagues rose to the surface and demanded my attention, unexpected technology glitches occurred, traffic jams and crazy drivers seemed to follow me on some days. This abundance of insanity was also instructive, and my reactions to these "surprises" had evolved as well. Instead of getting caught up in the drama and spinning inside a vortex of anger and frustration, I paused, I allowed, I waited, I chose thoughtful words, and I didn't take any of the craziness personally.
This mantra sadhana was extremely beneficial. Even though it pushed my buttons at times, and the discipline of the practice was tedious or inconvenient on some days, I persevered, and I did, in fact, receive abundance--an abundance of wisdom, guidance, humor, spontaneity, creativity, friendship, and self-respect. Even though the abundance I received did not come in the form that I was expecting, it definitely came in the form that I needed, and I can't wait to start my next forty-day sadhana. TM