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--
Spiritual Maturity: A Journey from Woo-Woo to Wisdom February 17, 2022 10:45
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A few days ago, a friend of mine had posted a picture of the book Ask and It Is Given on Facebook. She had recently read it, and it resonated for her.
I don’t respond often to posts, but I felt the need to “chime in” with this one, in a compassionate way. I wasn’t mean-spirited or rude. I wasn’t judgmental or unkind. In fact, I admitted to my friend that I had read this book, too, years ago.
I had even purchased tapes (yes, tapes) of Abraham-Hicks conversations. I also listened to various Hay House Radio programs back in the day. I was totally on board and sucked into the “vortex” of woo-woo.
I had read The Secret, and I had watched the video, I’m embarrassed to admit, on more than one occasion.
During this time in my life (early 2000’s), I was attending psychic fairs, I read a lot of “self help” books (many by Hay House authors), I had angel and archetype card decks lying around the house. I was frequently shuffling decks and pulling cards for guidance or validation for something or other.
During this time, I consulted psychics, numerologists, astrologists—For an entire year, I participated in a “meditation” group that met weekly at a local rock and crystal shop.
I had immersed myself in a new age “spiritual” world, and, at the time, it resonated—or, at least, I thought so.
At the time, I was also very vulnerable. Jim’s father had passed away, we moved to a new home in a new town, we had invited Jim’s mom to live with us, my daughter was very young and just starting school, I had recently finished graduate school, and I was teaching full time. My life was very busy, stressful, and chaotic at this time. I didn’t have time or energy for deep thoughts.
Instead, I took solace in pseudoscience. It was easy to access, and I didn’t have to think too much. Most of the “guidance” I received from psychics was vague and general (which is typical). I liked the atmosphere of the rock shop with the sounds of ambient music, the tinkling of wind chimes, creaking wooden floors, and the ever present scent of incense—and all the shelves lined with new age spiritual books about spirit guides, animal totems, dream interpretation, channeled conversations from the spirit realm, near death experiences, and angels. All of this was very soothing, calming, and validating to me.
I felt safe here. I took refuge in the supernatural and the hokey. I made friends and felt connected to others who felt comforted by these things, too.
I was satisfied, satiated, and numb in this vacuous world of manifesting good vibes, generating energetic frequencies, and clutching shiny stones.
Even though I cringe writing about this now, this world was a necessary escape hatch for me at the time. I don’t regret the friends I met here or visiting this place. It was what I needed. It helped me manage my overly busy life. Yes, what it had to offer was superficial, contrived, and rife with sugar-coated magical thinking, but I loved it.
When I read my friend’s recent post and book review of Ask and It Is Given, it made me cringe a bit in embarrassment at first, but it also made me realize how far I have come since then.
Slowly, slowly over time I began to drift away from seeking comfort in vapid guidance on glossy cards and reading books that offered “There, there, Honey” reassurances but did little to empower me, enrich my life, or encourage me to contemplate deeply or take meaningful action.
Looking back, I was very gullible, naïve, and desperate for validation outside of myself. Reading these books taught me to look at myself, but in a very self-centered way. These sources never had anything specific or concrete to offer, and they also didn’t suggest being of meaningful service to others, which is critical for authentic spiritual growth.
These books, recordings, and tchotchkes were mind-numbing escapes from my mind-numbingly busy life. They were like a Styrofoam life raft in very dark and turbulent waters. At the very least, they kept me afloat.
Like all things, nothing is permanent. As my life changed, my interests also shifted. My life settled, and I started to crave more substance, more meaning, and more depth.
I also became aware of controversies associated with some of the Hay House authors as well as the publishing company itself, and critical thinking helped to break the spell for me. I became more mindful, picky, and discerning about the books I read. I selected authors who valued ethics, cultural diversity, inclusivity—and teachers who didn’t manipulate, lie, berate, or bamboozle their students.
I became hungry for practices that encouraged me to look at myself, but not to attach, grasp, or cling. I was drawn to practices that were simple, but also meaningful—practices that invited generosity, compassion, and kindness toward others. I was hungry for significant connections and interconnection.
Fortunately, this led me to seek out books, teachings, and teachers who would push me to be better, rather than lull me into a spiritual la-la land.
So, what am I up to now?
Currently, I’m reading books that feed my mind, that appeal to my need for spiritual connection, that inspire my personal practice, and that encourage me to be of meaningful service to others.
For example, over the last few years I have participated in three Retreats from Afar through Sravasti Abbey in Washington state, where Venerable Thubten Chodron is the abbess.
These programs include daily meditation sessions and weekly transcripts of amazing Dharma teachings that inspire me to continue to learn and practice. These Buddhist teachings are informative, specific, relevant, and Thubten Chodron always includes examples and analogies that Westerners can relate to and appreciate in her teachings.
I like practicing on my own at home, but there’s also the option to practice on Zoom or a livestream video, which is a wonderful option. This year’s retreat focuses on Medicine Buddha.
The Sravasti Abbey website includes a vast library of teachings (both in written and video format) that are free and available to the public.
In addition, Thubten Chodron has collaborated with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, on a series of Buddhist books called The Library of Wisdom and Compassion (Simon and Schuster). Currently, six volumes have been published, and two more are slated for publication later this year. These books contain detailed, accessible Buddhist teachings, meditations, and commentaries. They are profound treasures of wisdom and meaning.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I joined an online book club. We met once a month to discuss the book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, which included essays by angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah. This book was engaging, real, contemporary, and controversial, and our group had excellent, and sometimes animated, discussions about systemic racism, privilege, and injustice--and how Dharma can be a vehicle for positive, meaningful change.
A few months later, this group gathered again (virtually) to discuss Lama Rod Owens’ Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger. Again, this book was compelling, personal, and timely. Our group had meaningful discussions—and I really appreciated how Lama Rod shared so many specific details about his own personal practice in this book.
Currently, our little virtual book club is now reading and discussing Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck, and we are enjoying the discussions that this wonderful treasure has inspired as well.
I also like Roshi Joan Halifax (Abbot, Head Teacher, and Founder of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico). Her book, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet is excellent as well.
Believe it or not, I don’t just read Buddhist texts. I’m a big fan of Brené Brown (Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, Daring Greatly), Stephen Nachmanovitch (The Art of Is: Improvising as a Way of Life), and Martha Beck (Finding Your Own North Star, Steering By Starlight, and The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self), to name just a few.
I also have a few favorite podcasts that are engaging as well. They are rich with specific, relevant information, and they foster critical thinking. My favorites are The Mind and Life Podcast, IndoctriNation with Rachel Bernstein, and Conspirituality Podcast.
All of these teachers are helping me keep it together, that’s for sure :).
Twenty years ago, I didn’t really have a personal practice to speak of, but I was certainly searching for one. The angel cards and Hay House hokum were stepping stones and gateways to a much more compelling and authentic way of thinking.
My gullibility, naiveté, and exhaustion may have led me into a vortex of “woo woo” for a time, but, ultimately, this new age pseudoscience sparked my curiosity and my deep need for meaning and connection. They led me to discover authentic, ethical, inclusive, and diverse teachers and powerful sources of wisdom.
I don’t know where my practice will lead me twenty years from now, but I am continuing to learn, grow, and enjoy this journey—not only for myself, but for the benefit of others as well.
My hope is that my curiosity continues to lead me even farther, that my practice continues to deepen, my heart and mind continue to open, and my capacity for wisdom and compassion continues to grow.
I wish the same for all of you as well. Honor your journey—all the parts—even the bumps and unexpected detours. They led you to where you are now, and they’ve given you the courage, critical thinking, and patience to continue on your path, wherever it may lead.
In many ways, we are what we read, but we can always choose to close the books that no longer benefit us and find new ones that do.