Suffering and Happiness: A Tangled Interconnection May 29, 2023 08:57
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, click HERE for the audio link.
During a recent meditation class, my teacher, Geshe Kunga, said something that has stuck with me, and I have been mulling it over for several days.
He said that happiness and suffering are interdependent and interconnected. For example, we appreciate food more if we have ever experienced hunger first hand. If we've ever lived in a country where water was a scarce and precious resource, we are more careful about how we use water--even if we're in a place where it is plentiful.
The suffering and lack of resources stimulates an appreciation and a strong sense of responsibility. This is the relationship between suffering and happiness.
Suffering, like everything else, is impermanent--and, so is happiness. Consequently, our lives are a blend of both--just like the beads on a mala. The beads themselves represent the beautiful aspects of life. The knots between the beads represent the hardships and obstacles. A meaningful life includes a balance of both.
Since January of this year, I have been practicing Lam Rim meditations with an online group connected with Sravasti Abbey. I enjoy the daily sessions--the familiarity of the mantra recitations, the visualizations, and the analytical contemplations that comprise this daily practice.
However, there's a part of the practice that I struggle with a bit, and it makes me bristle and cringe. As we begin the Shakyamuni Buddha sadhana, we visualize our birth mother on our left and our biological father on our right as we imagine leading them, along with other sentient beings, in this practice of gratitude and appreciation.
Both of my birth parents were challenging for me in many ways. They divorced when I was very young, so I didn't really know my father. What I did know wasn't good--he was a misogynist, a bigot, and a literal card-carrying member of the KKK.
My mother survived a serious car accident when she was a teenager. She slammed through the windshield...twice...and sustained serious head trauma at sixteen when she was riding in a car with friends.
As a result, she suffered with mental health issues ever since I can remember and even up until the time she died. When I was growing up, she took various combinations of medications over the course of decades ranging from anti-depressants to anti-psychotics. She worked with several therapists over the years, she was hospitalized several times, and she even endured shock-therapy treatments.
Looking back, I really think that she may have been misdiagnosed, and I believe that working with a therapist who specialized in trauma would have benefited her. However, I don't know if there were many specialists like that in the 70s.
Living with her when I was growing up, I remember that she was extremely self-absorbed, withdrawn, emotionally unavailable toward others, and needy. She was able to work for a while, but when she stopped working, she spent most of her time lying on the couch with her eyes closed--or staying in her room with the door closed.
She was very intelligent and bright...cogent...lucid...but also extremely preoccupied with her own wants and needs. When she did speak, it was usually something about herself or a needy request for some impulse craving: "Will you go to the store and get me a candy bar and a can of creamed corn?"
This was an actual request--and there were many random demands like this over the years.
I didn't know about causes, conditions, and karma at the time (I grew up in a Catholic home and didn't discover Buddhism until I was in my late 20s), but her life and choices demonstrated for me the drawbacks of self-cherishing and self-grasping thoughts.
All the medications and therapy didn't really help her much. She was obsessed with herself, and her self-absorption made her (and the rest of the family) miserable. Growing up with a difficult parent and home life encouraged me to seek other alternatives.
I walked away from Catholicism and embraced Buddhism instead.
I rejected my birth father's racist views and welcomed inclusive, anti-racist, and culturally-appreciative ideologies instead.
I did NOT want to be like my mom, so I focused more on giving rather than taking--on being of benefit to others rather than focusing on myself.
This is where suffering and happiness meet--and the line they share is in the choices we make.
If we're not happy, we can decide to choose another thought, another word, or another action. Our situation may not change immediately; it takes time. My life didn't begin to change for the better until I moved out of my parents' home at nineteen. I had to be consistent...and patient.
However, when I was in college and really focused on learning about subjects that fascinated me, especially learning how to educate others and helping others figure out what fascinated them, my life started to improve dramatically.
I have always enjoyed learning about other cultures. For a while, I considered the notion of studying cultural anthropology. Appreciating and learning about other cultures and viewpoints taught me to be open-minded and open-hearted, rather than fearful, limited, and hateful.
Interacting and teaching students from diverse cultures has enriched my life--and has encouraged me to feel connected and interconnected in this world.
Reading books and listening to music by writers and musicians from different walks of life and backgrounds has nourished my own curiosity and development.
My first teachers, my birth parents, taught me what NOT to be, what NOT to do. These early years of difficulty and suffering led to many more of growth, renewal, and happiness.
My life is far from perfect, and I am not happy all the time. That is for sure! I still struggle and suffer. I still make mistakes and screw up...a lot...but when I do, I know that I have choices. I know that I can sit with discomfort--listen to my thoughts--observe my feelings. I know that I can turn to others if I need guidance. I know that suffering, like happiness, is not permanent.
I also know that I can rely on the Dharma for inspiration. I know that I can rely on my practice for stability and clarity. I know that by focusing on others more than myself--by practicing generosity, patience, consistent and skillful effort, and by making time for daily meditation, I can manage more effectively these moments of suffering and disappointment.
Even now, having had time to reflect and write about this topic and these relationships, I now have a daily opportunity to reframe how I feel about my birth parents. My mom passed away nearly a decade ago. My birth father, I presume, is still living in a small town somewhere in Illinois. When I visualize them, appearing to my left and my right, I can now work toward feeling grateful. Despite the struggles and challenges, they taught me invaluable lessons, and my time with them eventually inspired me to grow and build a meaningful life.
My hope in writing these monthly blog posts is that they may benefit whoever reads (or listens to) them in some way.
May you continue to learn and grow in your own practice, and perhaps you'll find buried treasures among your own memories and relationships--evidence of interconnection--sparks of awareness, understanding, and compassion.
Several malas found new homes during this month. I've added a few to the collection, and I'm working on creating more one-of-a-kind designs. I invite you to visit the website to see what's new, and feel free to reach out if you have a special request.
Photo credit: Facebook
Finding Resonance with Your Practice: Easing into the New Year January 31, 2023 19:01
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, click here for the audio link.
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--