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Finding Resonance with Your Practice: Easing into the New Year January 31, 2023 19:01

snowy morning offerings on outdoor altar space. Snow covered Buddha holds birdseed

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--

 

Take care!

 

 

 

 

 

 


Interdependence and the Trip of a Lifetime: The Balance of Giving and Receiving December 31, 2022 13:33

View of sunset at Namgyal Monastery, temple of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

(View from Namgyal Monastery, HHDL's temple in Dharamshala)

 

If you prefer to listen to this month's blog post, please click HERE for the audio link. 

 

Americans, in general, are a bit fussy about independence. We like to be able to do things "all by ourselves," and many of us are hesitant to accept help from others. However, one of the biggest lessons that my Buddhist practice has taught me is that we are constantly riding the waves of our own personal and collective karmas, and that because of various causes and conditions, no one journeys through life alone--we are interdependent beings, whether we realize it or not. Life is more fun when you realize it, though.

I was very fortunate to be able to travel with a group of Dharma friends to India in November. We spent a week near a monastery in South India, and then we went to Dharamshala in North India for a week or so.

This truly was an amazing trip of a lifetime, and it would not have been possible without the presence, assistance, patience, kindness, compassion, generosity, expertise, and effort of many, many others.

One of the biggest lessons of this trip for me focused on the importance of giving and receiving--especially maintaining a healthy balance between these two actions.

 Too much giving--especially feeling pressured to give, can leave me feeling depleted and exhausted. By the same token, too much receiving makes me feel  uncomfortable, undeserving, selfish, and mired in the grippy tangle of attachment.

This trip was a beautiful dance of give and receive, and our group members were willing participants in its choreography. 

One of the things we were grateful for was the delicious food we enjoyed while in India. While we were in Delhi, we were invited to a dinner at the Tashi Kyil Guest House and were served steaming platters of momos, veggies, fresh bread, and cups of hot chai.

I remember hearing the clatter of dishes, pots, and pans--the hiss of steam--the spray of water in the kitchen. Many hands were involved in preparing this meal, and it was delicious.

We enjoyed all of the meals during our trip, whether they were served in fancy hotels or prepared in tiny local restaurants, like Dolma's Kitchen in Dharamshala, where all the food was made from scratch--the tea from the Norbulinka Cafe, the cheesecake and yogurt mousse from a tiny restaurant near Namgyal Monastery--and all those wonderful honey lemon ginger teas and cappuccinos.

No matter where we went, we were greeted with warm, smiling faces and sincere service. We pooled our rupees and took turns paying for each other's meals. It was a beautiful exchange of give and receive--one fueled by meaningful service and gratitude.

Geshe Kunga treated us to tea at a shop along the kora by HHDL's temple

(Geshe Kunga treated us to tea at an outdoor cafe along the kora in Dharamshala)

We did not partake in street food. However, one of my favorite meals was "soup in a bucket." Our teacher, Geshe Kunga, who took very good care of us throughout this trip, sent us an urgent message one evening to come to the temple. We hurried down dark, crowded streets to Namgyal Monastery to be greeted by Geshe-lak, who served us steaming bowls of spicy vegetable soup with thick, hand-made noodles from a large metal bucket. He had sponsored a dinner and wanted to share it with us, too. Monks from Namgyal prepared it for their sangha members. We sat on metal benches at the Dalai Lama's temple and enjoyed the warm, savory soup that was lovingly prepared by many monks for the benefit of many others.

Sangha members enjoying soup in a bucket. Warm, savory, spicy, made from scratch and sponsored by our teacher, Geshe Kunga.

(Mmmm...mmmmm...good. Sangha members enjoying homemade soup)

Interdependence was literally all around us--and it was not limited to restaurants and coffee shops. It was with us in the bustling Delhi airport--it was with us in traffic as taxi drivers gracefully chauffeured us among other cars, trucks, tuk tuks, scooters, pedestrians, and even livestock on crowded streets.

Interdependence was with us as we navigated our way on foot through narrow alleyways of the Tibetan Quarter in Manju ka Tila, busy markets near Hubballi,  and the sloping network of streets in McCleod Ganj.

***

 We had so much to be thankful for on this trip, but the day before Thanksgiving, we had the opportunity of a lifetime--our group had an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

I can't begin to fathom all of the causes and conditions that had to align in order for this meeting to occur, but we were beyond appreciative.

I remember waking up at 3:00 AM in my hotel room at the Serkong House. I was too keyed up to practice, so I sat in bed and chanted the long Chenrezig mantra. I made a cup of tea, continued to chant, and waited.

Later, I showered, changed into a chupa (Traditional Tibetan dress) and pangden (apron) and met the rest of our group in the lobby at 6:15 AM.

We walked to the temple in the cool darkness. A black feral dog walked with us, escorting us most of the way to Namgyal Monastery. I was a little nervous about our meeting, but continuing to chant the Chenrezig mantra helped me remain calm, clear, and focused.

Geshe Kunga was waiting for us at the gate, and we walked to the office where we all took Covid tests. Our group was scheduled to meet with HHDL last that morning.

We showed our passports, went through security, and waited. We placed objects that we brought with us for HHDL to bless on a small table. I brought my white Selenite mala and a small quarter mala that I had made for someone special and gave these to the attending monk.

When it was time, our group was ushered upstairs to a room where couches and several chairs were arranged on either side of HHDL's seat in the middle of the room. Once we were seated, we remained very quiet as attending monks bustled quietly around us. One brought in a tray of beautiful statues and placed it on a nearby table.

We could hear groups of people just outside the door, and occasionally, HHDL's voice and gentle laugh as he patiently greeted those who came to see him, along with the rapid shutter clicks of a camera.  

We waited quietly in the room for thirty minutes or so. Geshe Kunga gave each of us a Medicine Buddha statue from the tray to offer to HHDL. We unfurled our khatags that we brought and rested the statues on them in our laps. Then, His Holiness quietly entered the room, flanked by attending monks who guided him to his seat. All of my nervousness melted away, and I felt very calm and at ease in his presence.

Takster Rinpoche, a young lama who is connected to our Bloomington center, was kneeling on the floor beside him. Our connection to this young lama is the reason why our group was here--and why this private audience was possible.

His Holiness was very kind and nurturing to the young Rinpoche. He affectionately touched his head and patted him as he talked to us. He encouraged Rinpoche to continue his studies, and he emphasized that this was very important. His sincerity and encouragement were quite moving for all of us, particularly for Rinpoche, who wept quietly as he spoke to him.

Afterwards, attending monks helped us to line up with our offerings. At the last moment, while I was waiting in line, one of the monks, Geshe Sangay, gave me a beautiful jeweled conch shell to offer as well.

My mind was calm, and my hands were full with beautiful offerings. When it was my turn, I knelt down before HHDL as attending monks collected the offerings; in turn, they gave me a small Buddha statue that had been blessed by HHDL. We met eyes and smiled. He held my gaze briefly, leaned forward to pat my cheek, and brought his forehead to touch mine.

No words were spoken--and they weren't necessary-- it was merely a quiet exchange of sincerity, joy, compassion, and gratitude.

He placed the khatag around my neck, attending monks helped me to my feet, and they led me out of the room.

Our group gathered our things and blessed items and took several group photos in front of the temple. We walked back to the Serkong House for breakfast in a blissful state--among fellow pedestrians, scooters, tuk tuks, vendors, monastics, and feral dogs. I have never felt a stronger sense of connection to all of humanity in my life. I felt calm, connected, and interconnected to everyone and everything around me. It was a beautiful experience and a memory that I will treasure always.

Meeting with the Dalai Lama

 (Meeting HHDL was a joy)

Sangha Members with HHDL

(Dharma friends with HHDL)

 group photo in front of HHDL's office after private audience

 (Group photo with our group outside HHDL's office)

***

Every day of this trip was an adventure, and every day revealed the reality and significance of interdependence.

Meeting His Holiness was an amazing and meaningful opportunity, but I was hoping to meet someone else who was just as special to me.

I have been sponsoring a nun through the Tibetan Nuns Project for several years. Venerable Tsundue Palmo resides at Tilokpur nunnery, which is about an hour away from Dharamshala. Before our trip, I had reached out to TNP administrators to see if it would be possible to arrange a visit during our trip. Our schedule was tight and unpredictable, but many hearts and hands came together again to bring Venerable to Dolma Ling, a nunnery much closer to Dharamshala.

Honestly, I was a little more nervous about meeting her than I was meeting HHDL. Our group had rented a car and traveled to Gyuto Monastery first. The buildings were painted bright yellow, birds were everywhere, and young monks were chanting mantras from open windows. It was a beautiful, sunny day--Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.

Then, we traveled to nearby Dolma Ling and met with Tenzin, who helped make this meeting possible. After a few minutes, a car arrived at the nunnery, and I was able to meet Ven.Tsundue Palmo in person. I was surrounded by my Dharma friends when Tenzin introduced us. I offered Venerable a khatag, a donation in a bright orange envelope, and the quarter mala that I had made for her, which had been blessed by HHDL the day before. 

Venerable was very soft-spoken, peaceful, and pleasant. Tenzin took us on a tour of Dolma Ling nunnery, and we stopped by the office so my friends could make prayer requests and donations to TNP. Then, we invited Venerable to join us for lunch at nearby Norbulinka, a beautiful monastery with a museum, restaurant, and gift shop.

Another member of our group, Victor, happened to be connected with the project manager at Norbulinka, Nyima, and she graciously treated our group to lunch and a tour of Norbulinka. It was another wonderful day--and interdependence made it all possible.

It was a joy meeting Venerable in person, and it definitely strengthened my motivation to continue to support her and the Tibetan Nuns Project.

 Offering khatag to Venerable Tsundue Palmo

 (Victor taking a photo of me offering a khatag to Venerable Tsundue Palmo)

Joyous meeting with TNP nun Venerable Tsundue Palmo

 (Venerable and I --a joyous meeting)

Venerable at Norbulinka

(Venerable after lunch at Norbulinka)

 

***

Our group was riding the waves of our collective good karma, but it wasn't finished with us yet. Another member of our group, David, had met with Rinchen Khando Choegyal years ago when he had traveled to India in the 70s. This previous meeting with her was extremely inspiring and meaningful for him, so he reached out and managed to arrange a private audience with her and our group.

Rinchen-lak is the founder and special advisor of The Tibetan Nuns Project. She is the former Minister of Education in the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, and she is the founding President of the Tibetan Women's Association. Oh, and she's also HHDL's sister-in-law.

Later in the week, we rented a car and drove to Kashmir Cottage to meet with her. We were seated in a small, airy room where her attendant brought us glasses of ginger tea.

 She was very kind and generous with her time. We talked with her for an hour. She told us that her family was originally from Kham in Tibet, and her family came to India in 1958, a year before the Chinese invaded Tibet.

She came from a wealthy family and was able to attend school. Rinchen-lak later married the Dalai Lama's brother, and she started a bakery to provide food for other Tibetan refugees. She also helped provide clean water for the nuns at Tilokpur (the same nunnery where Ven. now resides) and opened Kashmir Cottage as a guest house.

She worked very hard to ensure that the nuns were fed and cared for--that they had qualified teachers and received a good education. She emphasized practical, foundational matters, tending to the physical wellbeing and mental health for the nuns as well as practicing Dharma.

Rinchen-lak was a kind-hearted, generous host, but in hearing her story, she was also wise, fiercely determined, and dedicated to helping the Tibetan people and to preserving the Dharma and Tibetan culture. Her work in educating and supporting Tibetan Buddhist nuns is beyond inspiring, and her primary message to us was..."For everything that you have, now it is time to give something back."

This is the essence of interdependence.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal at Kashmir Cottage

(Rinchen Khando Choegyal at Kashmir Cottage)

David was instrumental in making this meeting possible. He was very grateful to be able to meet with Rinchen lak again.

(David expresses his gratitude)

 

Group photo at Kashmir Cottage with Rinchen Khando Choegyal

(Dharma friends with Rinchen-lak)

 These were just some of the highlights of our trip to India. There were actually many other examples and many more wonderful people that I could have mentioned in this article. 

I am very grateful to have experienced all of the events of this trip with my Dharma friends. Much gratitude to Geshe Kunga and TMBCC for making this trip possible. My hope is that sharing these moments with you will be of benefit as well.

May you give and receive with an open heart.

May you graciously accept help from others and offer help when you can.

May 2023 offer you many blessings, adventures, and opportunities.

May you continue to learn, grow, practice, and flourish in the coming New Year.

Geshe Kunga flanked by monk friends on the kora

 (Geshe-lak flanked by monk friends in Dharamshala)

 

 

 

 


Embracing the Benefits of Fall: Learning to Let Go October 29, 2022 14:06

A silhouette of Teresa standing in a leaf covered yard holding a large sycamore leaf.

If you would prefer to listen to this month's blog offering, please click HERE for the audio link. 

 

This autumn season is blazing with color in Indiana. The maples and oaks are letting go of their leaves in brilliant red, orange, gold, and sepia colors. Nature is throwing a party, and everyone is invited.

While I'm enjoying this colorful season, I'm also grappling with an undercurrent of anxiety. A few factors are contributing to this mild, but steady uneasiness.

1. I have a trip of a lifetime coming up in mid November. A group of dharma friends and I will be traveling to India in a few weeks. We'll be attending an important ceremony at a monastery in South India, and then we'll be headed to Dharamshala to attend a live teaching with H.H. the Dalai Lama.

I have been fussing with the details and preparations for this trip for months: securing a visa, arranging for required vaccinations, thinking about what to pack (for two climates), downloading necessary travel apps, etc. I have been navigating feelings of anticipation and excitement as well as the worry of uncertainty.

2. This trip occurs during a time when I usually attend an important event as a vendor. Because my mala biz is online, and I don't have a brick and mortar shop, attending events like Indy Holistic Hub's Wellbeing Fest in Indianapolis helps to boost my success and sustainability, and it also allows people in the community to see and purchase my malas in person.

As a result, I've been grappling with uncertainties about my business. I've been questioning and ruminating about whether what I do is relevant. I've been worrying about where I can find those who appreciate what I do--and where they can find me, so that they can use these malas to not only benefit their own personal practice, but they can also be of benefit to others.

I've been grappling with feelings of doubt and of not feeling worthy or relevant.

3. I recently attended an event earlier this month hosted by Shades of Becoming a Mom, Inc. It was a wonderful, meaningful ceremony dedicated to women and families who had experienced pregnancy, infant, or child loss.

In preparation for this event, I had created several quarter malas made with gemstones suited for dealing with grief and healing from loss. I was grateful to sell a few of them, and I was also very grateful to be invited to participate as a vendor at this event. I met some kind-hearted, gracious people.

However, those seeds of doubt and worry surfaced again. I was comparing this event to the Wellbeing Fest from last year, which is not a fair comparison at all. The audiences and intentions of these events are completely different--and making comparisons only makes me spiral into hopelessness and dread.

4. I am still trying to overcome my conditioning to believe that being busy and productive are marks of success. I taught English at a large high school for nearly twenty years. In this environment, I was frenetically, frantically busy--too busy, really...

too busy to think

too busy to enjoy what I was doing

too busy to have time with my family

too busy to have any kind of restorative personal practices

too busy to effectively take care of myself

This level of chaotic effort was not healthy or helpful for me or anyone around me. In many ways, I felt like a useless failure during this time.

Thankfully, I transferred to a smaller school in the same district, and things did improve, at first. I wasn't as stressed, and I felt like what I was doing (teaching young people to think and write and reflect) mattered.  Even though I was teaching in a smaller school, and the work environment was more healthy and supportive, it didn't take long for the commitments and pressures of teaching--the endless initiatives, the daily meetings, the constant stream of collecting data and proctoring various standardized tests--all the things that interfered rather than enhanced teaching--all of these things took over like kudzu--and I felt that stranglehold pull of stress, anxiety, and doubt once again.

About ten years ago, I transitioned to a part-time tutoring position at this same small school. Once again, things improved.

I had more time to help students one-on-one. Because this is a part-time position, I also had time to take care of myself. I had time to read, to spend time with my family, to practice yoga and Feldenkrais lessons, to travel to Bloomington for dharma talks, to create malas--and to start my mala business. For the first time, my life felt balanced.

____________________

Fall is a season of facing and celebrating change. Each year, month, day, moment is different from those that came before, and I have a choice about how to approach these constant changes.

Instead of planting seeds of doubt and worry about traveling to new, exciting places, not selling malas, missing an event that I can attend next year, I am taking inspiration from these beautiful fall leaves and giving myself permission to let go of expectations, attachments, patterns, behaviors, and thoughts that no longer serve me.

I don't need to be so busy that I can't think clearly or take care of myself and others.

I don't have to sell X number of malas or put unnecessary pressure on myself to  feel as though I matter.

I don't need to do more or exert unnecessary effort in order to feel productive or relevant.

This fall season is speaking to me, and the trees in my front yard are modeling what I need to do--to let go--to rest--to restore.

They are encouraging me to recognize and acknowledge the wisdom and confidence that I already have within me--and to have faith that a new growing season is coming.

They are reminding me to trust that the right people will find me and the malas on my online shop.

They are validating that what I do matters in a quiet way--and that what I do will encourage others to find their own paths as well.

Creativity can't be forced, and endless effort is not productive. It often leads to burnout and exhaustion. This fallow time is necessary, and it's giving me more time to devote to other interests and adventures.

I am embracing change during this beautiful season. In a couple of weeks, I will be going to India. I have never been there before, and I don't have any expectations or comparisons. I am open to having an adventure with my dharma friends and receiving any benefits that may come our way.

I am leaving my worries, doubts, and neurotic musings behind. May they drift to the ground like dry leaves and drift away with the wind, or sink into brown grass and nourish the soil underneath.

I look forward to sharing more details about this trip with you soon.

In the meantime, if you feel compelled to purchase a mala from the online shop, now is actually a good time. I am more than happy to send them your way before I depart.

May you reap the benefits of this beautiful season as well, and may these words and malas be of benefit.

 

Take care--

 

Teresa 

 

 

 

 


Retreats: Recharge, Renew, Reflect September 30, 2022 14:46

snow capped mountains and bright blue sky 

 

If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE to listen to the audio link.

I recently read Tenzin Palmo’s biography, Cave in the Snow, by Vickie MacKenzie. She is a well-respected Buddhist nun who had spent over twelve years in a solitary mountain retreat.

While I have no desire to climb up a mountain in the Himalayas to meditate in a tiny cave while enduring blizzards, avalanches, predatory creatures, and minimal options of food and medical supplies, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s dedication to practice was certainly inspiring.

Retreats can be rejuvenating and motivating, but not everyone has the privilege or karma to leave home and practice in an isolated environment. The good news is, retreats don’t have to occur in harsh, barren landscapes (or extravagantly elegant ones, for that matter); they don’t have to be expensive; they also don’t have to be lengthy to inspire meaningful practice and to be of benefit.

This month, I had the opportunity to attend three retreats of different sorts: a three-day Chenrezig retreat in Bloomington, a ten-day Feldenkrais summit, and a series of online teachings that focus on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s The Power of Mantra: Vital Practices for Transformation.

Even though each retreat had a different focus and topic, I was able to participate, practice, and tend to the other obligations and responsibilities in my life.  As a householder, I don’t have the luxury or time to practice uninterrupted in a secluded place, but these mini retreats have helped me maintain my motivation to practice as well as honor my family and work commitments.

  • Chenrezig Retreat

This past Labor Day weekend, Geshe Kunga held a Chenrezig Retreat at TMBCC in Bloomington.

He held a similar retreat a few years ago, and I was able to stay on site by renting one of their cottages. This time, however, I chose to commute each day instead. Several other retreatants had traveled from other states and countries, and I didn’t want to inconvenience them or deny them the opportunity to stay on site.

This retreat included three days of in-depth teachings and meditation sessions on Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. We spent time reading, analyzing, chanting, discussing, and unpacking a specific sadhana practice.

Before this retreat, my personal practice had become a bit inconsistent and sporadic, so this retreat and sadhana practice was the perfect jump start that I needed. It offered just enough structure, it was meaningful, and it didn’t require a lengthy time commitment.  

Since Labor Day weekend, I have been practicing this sadhana every day. I read it aloud in English (and Tibetan), and I look forward to my practice. Sometimes, I can practice in the early morning; sometimes I practice in between student sessions at school, and sometimes I practice later in the day or evening. Regardless of the time of day, I feel like I’ve accomplished something meaningful, and it gives me a sense of purpose. This jump start wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for this short retreat.

I wasn’t in a cave—I still have to deal with rush hour traffic—I still have to make trips to the grocery store—I still have to pay bills and wash dishes—and I still have to interact with others. But the thread running through all of these “beads of responsibility” is the practice.

 

  • Feldenkrais Summit

The second retreat that I participated in was the Move Better, Feel Better Summit hosted by my friend Cynthia Allen. She has hosted several online Feldenkrais summits in the past. This is an annual, online event that lasts for several days. This year’s event was a ten-day summit which included keynote speakers, presentations by experts and Feldenkrais practitioners from all over the world, and three short Feldenkrais lessons led by practitioners each day.

Because the interviews and lessons were pre-recorded, participants could access them online at their convenience. I could choose which interviews to watch and which lessons to practice, and the best part was, this event was free.

This summit is a wonderful opportunity for those who are new to the Feldenkrais Method to learn more about it, and for those who are familiar with the method, it’s a great opportunity to deepen their understanding and practice.

Like most conferences, this online event can seem overwhelming at first, and it’s tempting to want to see and do everything. If I lived in a cave with internet access, I probably would, but instead, I chose to watch one interview and practice at least one of the three lessons each day. Carving out time for my movement practice—making room to cultivate curiosity through learning, growing, and playing while still tending to real-life obligations has helped me maintain a healthy life balance.

I was able to listen to interviews while I was sending morning emails to students—or while cleaning my living room, and I could begin or end my day with a short movement lesson. This summit added novelty and structure to my life, and it encouraged me to make time to move, play, and attend to my life more fully.

 

  • The Power of Mantra

Finally, my third retreat, which is still ongoing, focuses on reading and analyzing a Buddhist text: The Power of Mantra: Vital Practices for Transformation.  

Venerable Yӧnten is an amazing Buddhist nun who is currently teaching at Vajrapani Institute in California. She is teaching a series of online lectures that focus on this text by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

I’ve been following Ven. Yӧnten’s teachings for a few years. She’s a young Mahayana Buddhist nun from Montana who is extremely knowledgeable (and funny). I appreciate how she can unpack and explain complex Buddhist ideas as well as incorporate relevant and contemporary examples to bring clarity and understanding to ancient teachings and concepts.

I had attended several of her live teachings on Zoom a few years ago when she was teaching in Israel. I remember waking up at 4:00 AM to attend these talks.

Her current teachings from Vajrapani Institute are also available live via Zoom. However, she is also sharing them on YouTube as well, which is more convenient for my schedule.

This text, The Power of Mantra, is a compilation of what Lama Zopa Rinpoche considers to be the most accessible Buddhist deities and their respective mantras. It includes chapters describing Shakyamuni Buddha, Chenrezig, Manjushri, Tara, Medicine Buddha, and Vajrasattva. In addition to explaining the significance of each deity, this text also includes mantras and short meditation practices that correspond with each.

The text alone is an absolute treasure, but being able to listen to Ven. Yӧnten explain in more detail and lead listeners through the meditations is an even greater gift.

  

Retreats are important—they are meaningful opportunities and necessary pockets of time for practice—whether it’s a meditation, movement, or mantra practice—whether the practice is intellectual in nature, or rooted in curiosity, creativity, and play. Taking the time to delve into practices that resonate with you is extremely important. Retreats can help boost, recharge, and energize a fading or forgotten interest, and they can help add structure to a sporadic practice, helping to make room or time for them even during the busiest of days. They can also give you something to look forward to.

The best part is, you don’t have to take refuge in a cave (or an expensive resort) in order to make time or reap the benefits of meaningful practices. With a little creativity, resourcefulness, and planning, retreats can occur in the middle of your own life, and they can become the sutra running through your own beads of responsibility.

 Enjoy your own practices, everyone!  Talk to you soon.

If you haven't visited the MMM online shop in a while, new designs have been added. Enhance your own personal practices with a beautiful, hand-knotted mala. Visit the current collection here .

 

 

 

 

 


Reflections on Leaving a Cult: Evolutions and Revelations August 25, 2022 11:01

A pigeon takes flight among other pigeons cooped in small boxes

 If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE for the audio recording.

I recently binge-listened to a podcast called Uncoverage. In it, Nina Bird Lawrence describes some of her childhood memories and recollections that she had while in a Tibetan Buddhist cult and her interactions with the leader of this cult, Chogyam Trungpa. Her story was one of deep sadness, survival, and growth. I appreciated her vivid and specific details in each episode. Each was a zoom-lens view of her experiences in Shambhala.

So many things were stirred up for me as I listened to Lawrence’s story. Cults aren’t necessarily large, global groups like Jim Jones’ The People’s Temple, the Moonies, or Scientology. Cult dynamics can occur in families, work places, one-on-one relationships, or, as was my case, a local yoga studio.

I had taken a weekly yoga class since 2000 at a local gym in Indianapolis. When I took a sabbatical from teaching high school English in 2012, I had more time to dive more deeply into my own personal practice. I discovered that a nearby yoga studio in Greenwood was offering a Yoga Teacher Training program. I chatted with the business owner (I will refer to her as Narcie in this article) at length on the phone, and I took a few classes at the studio before committing to the 200 hr. YTT training.

Looking back, I should have known better. There were signs all around me that things were not quite right, but I was in a vulnerable place in my life—I was exhausted and burned out from full-time teaching and was in desperate need of spiritual nourishment and self-care—so I was a prime candidate for a charismatic, predatory cult leader.

I remember the lobby area of the studio...cluttered and “busy” with shoes haphazardly scattered under wooden benches. Photos of famous yogis (T. Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois, Neem Karoli Baba) hung in mismatched frames on one wall. The wall leading to the studio space included hand-painted yoni shapes in thick, sticky jungle green and brown paint. The studio itself was dimly lit. Along one wall were stacks of yoga blocks of various sizes and colors, and straps hung on hooks. The flooring was a cheap laminate marked with Frog tape to indicate yoga mat placement. Mismatched sarongs were draped over tables and bookcases. A small burned-out salt lamp gathered cobwebs in one corner. Scruffy, worn-out bolsters were piled in the opposite corner along with leftover carpet squares and ceiling tiles. A long, vertical banner with the chakra symbols hung on the back wall near the bathroom. Additional canvases dotted the walls—dark, heavy colors in thick paint—abstract references suggesting Hindu deities like Ganesha and Kali.

There was always something interesting to look at, but it was not a warm, inviting place. The décor was dark, mysterious, and a bit unkempt. I recall Narcie telling me once, “It’s this place…it draws people in…and sends some away.”

 Dominance:

After I left this studio, I found the research and writings of Steve Hassan, Janja Lalich, Matthew Remski, and Rachel Bernstein to be extremely helpful to my healing. According to these experts, one of the qualities of a cult leader and a common characteristic of cult dynamics is dominance. According to Hassan, this authoritarian trait can come in the form of a person (Narcie), or an ideology (yoga).

Narcie liked to feel superior. She took pleasure in knowing things that others didn’t, and she wasn’t generous with her knowledge. She often withheld it to hold over others. For instance, sometimes, when I was taking her class, she would sneer to herself when she noticed that I struggled with a pose, instead of offering to help. She took pleasure in my awkwardness.

She also liked to manipulate and control others. She used hands-on adjustments frequently during her classes (without bothering to ask for consent first).  Having someone touch me during class was always jarring for me. It pulled me out of my practice, and it made my practice feel performative rather than interoceptive or reflective. Hands-on adjustments were intrusive—and made me feel judged and uncomfortable.

Later, when I led my own classes at this studio, I preferred offering verbal cues and giving my students agency instead of physically manipulating them.

Ironically, I would learn later, thanks to Matthew Remski’s book Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond that Pattabhi Jois, who abused hundreds of students at his shala in India, often used hands-on adjustments as a way of abusing his students in plain sight. Remski also refers to this invasive practice as somatic dominance.

Once, in one of her Gentle Yoga classes, which attracted a large number of regular students, and it was a class that I attended as well, Narcie announced during the flow that she was a sadist. Her students giggled at this; they thought she was joking...and that she was making a reference to the pose that we were doing. However, I didn’t laugh—because I knew she was admitting the truth.

Narcie could also be quite cruel, especially during our YTT modules. She would make biting comments about one of the students in our group—and tacitly encouraged others to either chime in or side with her. She encouraged petty dramas and passive-aggressive digs. She carefully picked her targets—she knew who she could bully or break down, and she was consistently aggressive and harsh with them.

Narcie liked to know what other teachers were learning, too, even though she was very aloof and reluctant to share her own knowledge. One of her students, for instance, was in graduate school and studying to be a physical therapist. One day, she had brought her anatomy text to the studio and was working on an assignment before class. Narcie glanced at her book and said, “I could be a doctor of yoga.”

Narcie also fostered tacit competition, and she needed to be better than everyone else around her. She was a very strong and skillful asana practitioner. She demonstrated physical mastery, flexibility, and prowess.  Sometimes, before the Gentle Yoga class, which was comprised mostly of older women, she would practice very advanced poses before class started. Those who arrived a few minutes early would be her “audience.” These displays communicated authority and superiority (as well as arrogance and unprofessionalism).

 Deception: 

Deception is another red flag and a strong indication of cult dynamics.

I felt like I was under a spell when I was in this studio space, especially when I was taking classes or attending YTT modules. During our training modules, Narcie would boast about being a highly intuitive empath. She also claimed to be a Reiki master and a firekeeper. Actually, she was a master co-opter and cultural appropriator.

She would host seasonal solstice ceremonies at her studio where participants would bring flowers, fruit, and chocolates to offer to the makeshift altar space that she had created in the middle of the floor, which included candles, crystals, and a statue of a sacred Hindu deity. Narcie was not a practicing Hindu, and her heritage was not Indian, but that didn’t stop her from appropriating sacred objects and traditions from Indian culture or chanting Sanskrit mantras without explaining their significance in her ceremonies.

Co-opting was a big part of her hustle as a studio owner. Narcie would learn about a new phrase, idea, or trend, and incorporate it into her own classes or create workshops around them. For example, she purchased several Yoga Dharma Wheels (a trendy $100+ prop that resembled a section of PVC pipe covered in a swath of rubber similar to a yoga mat), and decided to host a workshop around these expensive props. Participants had to purchase this prop in order to attend the workshop as well as sign a waiver releasing her of liability in the event of “death or injury” during this special class.

She also hosted workshops and private sessions that involved Reiki, Thai yoga massage, essential oils, and acro yoga—but would quickly lose interest and toss them aside, especially if they didn’t prove to be interesting or profitable. I found that she did the same with people as well.

Narcie wasn’t especially good with people, and she cultivated a fair amount of relational chaos and drama as a result. By nature, she was aloof and overly aggressive, so she had a hard time making and keeping loyal friends and partnerships. Her business partner, Russell (again, not his real name), was Yang to her Yin. Russell was friendly, affable, good-natured, and very energetic.

Narcie and Russell had an interesting relationship. When I first started going to their studio, they weren’t married, but they lived together. When Russell wasn’t around, Narcie referred to him on more than one occasion as an asshole, which confused me because he was more than willing to lie and cover for her, and he was her greatest go-along-to-get-along enabler.

When I was almost finished with their YTT program, Narcie suddenly left the studio. She had run away to Las Vegas for two months without an explanation, leaving Russell to field questions from curious (and worried) students, cover all of her classes, and keep the studio running.

 I had worried that she ran off to Vegas to gamble away all of the YTT money she had made from the students in our group. When customers asked Russell where Narcie went, he told them she was getting dental work done. It was a ridiculous lie that no one believed, but he said it with a smile, and they didn’t press him for more details.

Narcie eventually returned…without an explanation...and her teeth looked the same as they did before she left…crooked.

She never said a word about where she went or why she left, and we knew better than to ask. Fortunately, I was able to finish my training and started teaching Yin classes at their studio.

The signs had been there all along, but I didn’t see them. The co-opting, co-modification, cultural appropriation, fickle hustles and detours, and, of course, the lies. It took me six years to recognize that no matter how hard I worked, how many classes I taught, she didn’t value me…she didn’ t value anyone, but herself.

Delay Leaving:

"When we are no longer able to change a situation...we are challenged to change ourselves."  Victor Frankl

Cult researchers also agree that members of cults often delay leaving a manipulative, toxic group or environment. This may seem counterintuitive, but I totally understand. It took me six years to walk away from teaching and attending classes at this Greenwood studio.

I did enjoy teaching classes--that was the main reason why I stayed as long as I did--because of my students.

However, I also felt lonely in this space--and hopelessly inadequate. A 200-hour YTT program is not enough training to effectively lead others in a yoga practice.  Consequently, after I completed the YTT program at this studio, I also completed a Prenatal Yoga Program at Kripalu, I studied Yin Yoga in Vancouver, B.C., with Bernie Clark, and I completed an online Yoga for All training with Dianne Bondy and Amber Karnes.

All of these additional programs were excellent, and the teachers were knowledgeable AND professional--no secrets, no drama, no mind games.

These programs and trainings also helped boost my confidence while I taught prenatal, Yin, and community yoga classes at the Greenwood studio. I invested a great deal of time and effort preparing meaningful sequences for my students. Not only did these trainings help me grow as a teacher, they also helped me recognize how unhealthy the environment was in this space--and how manipulative and toxic Narcie and Russell actually were. In effect, breaking away helped me muster the courage to walk away.

In August, of 2017, I signed up for an additional training with my friend Alyssa at her studio in Broad Ripple. She was offering a YTT supplemental program for those who were interested in teaching meditation. Alyssa's program was excellent, too, and it was during her training that I found out about a meditation retreat in Colorado scheduled for March of 2018. 

I had been practicing meditation daily on my own, and was really looking forward to this retreat. On Thanksgiving of 2017, Narcie sent me an "urgent" email. I was expecting a message from a family member--it was a holiday, after all. Instead, it was Narcie wanting to know if I was interested in renewing my contract to teach at her studio (she had her independent contractors fill out ridiculously long contracts every six months). I had filled out these papers many times before, but for the first time, I hesitated--I thought about what the next six months would be like. I thought about teaching in her dark, cavelike studio. I thought about all of her demands, dramas, passive-aggressive digs, and mood swings that I would have to tolerate. I thought about her lack of appreciation for all of the effort and dedication that I would offer, and then I thought about the upcoming meditation retreat-- and the hassle of finding subs to cover my classes while I was away.

It was at that point that I decided to leave. I taught my last class on December 17, 2017. Narcie didn't thank me for my time, effort, and dedication--and she didn't even say goodbye...which was a clear indication that I had made the right decision.

I tried to maintain my own personal asana practice afterwards, but I found it to be extremely triggering for me emotionally. When I attended the meditation retreat a few months later, I met a few Feldenkrais practitioners, and was very curious about this practice. I have been a fan of this alternative somatic movement practice ever since.

I was not the only teacher to leave this studio; others left, too. In fact, Narcie closed this Greenwood studio within a year of my leaving. I am relieved that she will no longer harm others in this space. She does still teach online, however. Thankfully, there are also many qualified, kind, and ethical teachers who are teaching online as well. I'm hoping they will outshine her dark influence.

I don't teach asana anymore; however, in the last five years, I have been healing from the toxic cult dynamics that were present at this studio and from the manipulative, controlling business owners. Feldenkrais lessons have been a wonderful substitute for asana, and I have been actively exploring and practicing the other seven limbs of yoga.

Yoga is not just about physical postures; it is much more vast and profound. Leaving this studio has given me an opportunity to actively cultivate a stronger sense of discernment and ethics; breath practices have been extremely helpful in regulating my nervous system; I have benefited from single-pointed focus, and I have found contentment and authenticity in my own meditation, mantra, and Buddhist practices.

In walking away from a toxic environment and toxic people, I have found compassion and peace, which are key ingredients for a healthy yoga practice. I have also had more time to heal and grow, and I've been able to fill in the gaps that these distressing experiences created with authentic, meaningful practices, and by surrounding myself with people who have an enormous capacity for integrity, humility, and kindness.

Another bonus: moving forward has also given me more time to devote to stringing malas. Creating beautiful, hand-knotted malas has not only fostered my own healing and allowed me to dive more deeply into my own personal meditation practice; it has also helped me inspire others to explore meditation in their own ways as well.

Thanks for reading or listening to my story today. It was not an easy one to write, and my hope is that it will be of benefit to others.

If you haven't taken a look at the malas available in the current online collection, please visit the MMM homepage. There are malas waiting for your there.

 

 


Less Is More: The Beauty and Benefits of Quarter Malas July 30, 2022 10:36

Citrine and Summer Quarter Mala with faceted Citrine, Labradorite, and Fossil Jasper beads. Bright gold Swarovski crystal guru and goldenrod sutra and tassel.

To listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE for the audio link.

Lately, I have been inspired to create a series of quarter malas. Quarter malas include twenty-seven beads (1/4 of 108) plus a guru and tassel.

Practicing with a quarter mala, as opposed to a full mala, has several benefits, and in this month's article, I'd like to share what some of those benefits are.

*Portable

One benefit of practicing with a quarter mala is it's portable and easy to use while traveling. They are convenient and store easily in the console of a car, a carry on bag, or a desk drawer at school or office workplaces.  

Construction delays and traffic jams are perfect opportunities for mantra practice in the car in order to keep calm and carry on. I also keep one at school in my desk drawer. Sometimes, between student tutoring sessions, I'll take it with me as I walk around the track--moving mindfully and chanting mantra is a wonderful way to take care of myself during the work day and squeeze in a little practice time.

The quarter malas I design are intended for practice. Sometimes, people will ask if I can make "stretchy bracelets." I don't--for a couple of reasons. One, I'm not able to create a knotted quarter mala with stretchy cord--and the knots are an important part of the design. They represent the obstacles and challenges we face in life. The beads represent the beautiful aspects and blessings--and a balanced, meaningful life requires both.

Two, stretchy bracelets break fairly easily, and it's too easy to slip one on and go about your day without thinking about practicing. Having a knotted quarter mala that you keep in a place where you'll see it or can find it easily will remind you to practice. They serve a special purpose, beyond that of a pretty bracelet. Consequently, they aren't designed to be worn throughout the day. So, for those of you who were wondering, that's why I don't make stretchy bracelets.

*Reciting Longer Mantras

Saving time and cultivating a consistent daily practice are two additional benefits of quarter malas. This is especially true when reciting longer mantras. Some sadhana practices, for example, include lengthy mantras, and reciting a 100-syllable mantra 27 times vs.108 times can be more practical and efficient.

Not everyone has time to (or wants to) chant mantras all day long. Family obligations and work-related responsibilities are important priorities. Carving out a few minutes each day for practice can be challenging at times, and working with a quarter mala can help establish a necessary balance among work life, family time, and self care.

This "less is more" approach (chanting 27 recitations as opposed to 108) makes it easier to cultivate and maintain a daily practice. It's easier to stay present and focused with each recitation, especially with longer mantras. On really busy days, taking time to practice with a quarter mala makes me feel like I've accomplished something important and meaningful--that I've done something to help myself, and others.

Close up view of Vajrasattva quarter mala with 100 syllable mantra as background. Pink Sunstone and deep red Hessionite Garnet beads with Tibetan agate guru and maroon tassel. Om Vajrasattva Hum.

I recited the Long Gayatri mantra daily for several years. I actually used a half mala for this practice, but looking back, a quarter mala would have really come in handy. I've also used quarter malas for Vajrasattva and Medicine Buddha sadhanas. I created a specific quarter mala for the Vajrasattva practice, and another one for Medicine Buddha. Know that it's OK to use the same mala for different mantras, but I like to use one, specific mala for a each corresponding mantra practice.

*Altar Spaces

Another benefit of quarter malas is that they are perfect for safe keeping on home altar spaces. They don't take up much room on a small altar, and they are beautiful reminders to practice.   

Aqua Terra quarter mala adorning deep blue Medicine Buddha statue on home altar space.

 *Gifts and Offerings

Quarter malas also make meaningful, thoughtful gifts for fellow meditators, practitioners, yoga friends, and teachers.

I've been very fortunate to have had ethical, kind-hearted, and knowledgeable Dharma teachers, and I have given many of them quarter malas as gifts of appreciation.

I've also given them as gifts to loyal customers over the years for their continued support.

Quarter malas also make beautiful offerings for special events and pujas at Dharma centers and temples. Generosity is a practice in and of itself, and offering quarter malas to others with an open heart is a beautiful way to give.

*Affordable

Finally, quarter malas are perfect for practitioners on a budget. Most of the quarter malas I create are between $40--$50. I take time and care to create beautiful hand-knotted designs with high-quality beads in the hopes that they will inspire practice (this is just as true for quarter malas as it is for the full malas).

Whether you are a beginning practitioner who is just starting on the path of a daily mantra practice, or a seasoned practitioner who is looking for more opportunities to practice throughout the day, quarter malas are beautiful, convenient, affordable, and meaningful tools to assist you on your personal journey. 

Although I try to keep a few quarter malas in the ever-changing collection on the MMM website, they tend to go quickly. Please know that I can also create custom designs. For example, if you would like a quarter mala, but there aren't any available on the online shop, please reach out through the Contact Us page. I would be happy to create a quarter mala design that's just right for you.

Feel free to visit the home page to view the current collection of mala designs. Until next month, keep practicing!

 


How to Use a Mala: Step by Step Instructions for Daily Mantra Practice June 27, 2022 18:06

full view of orange jasper mala with silk green tassel and carved wooden guru.

 If you would prefer to listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE for the audio link.

I was recently at a Summer Solstice event in downtown Indianapolis, Monumental Yoga. I've been a vendor at this annual event for several years now, and in chatting with folks who stopped by our booth, I took the time to explain how to use a mala.

I'm always surprised at the number of yoga peeps who have malas--and wear them regularly--but who don't know how to use them. To me, it's like wearing an immersion blender around your neck--you have this amazing tool designed to transform and change aspects of your life--but you don't use it as it's intended. 

Over the years, I would occasionally post short videos on Facebook or Instagram demonstrating how to use a mala, but I think it would be helpful to devote a blog post to this process as well.

My hope is that those who have purchased Middle Moon Malas over the years, and who will purchase them, will actually use them as they were intended.

The steps are simple and very straightforward, but a little review information might be relevant here.

A full mala includes 108 beads plus a guru bead and a tassel.

There are 108 reasons why the number 108 is significant--however, my favorite reason is that the number 108 is known as a "harshad" number. Harshad means "bringer of joy" or "happiness" in Sanskrit. A harshad number is a number that is divisible by the sum of its digits. For example, 1+0+8 = 9. 108 divided by 9 = 12. Consequently, the number is like a circuit--it comes around full circle--just like a mala.

orange jasper mala. 108 beads plus carved wooden guru and silk green tassel

I like to create knotted malas. The knots showcase more of the beads, and they also protect the beads from cracking and breaking due to friction. The knots represent the obstacles in life, and the beads represent the beautiful aspects of life--and we need a balance of both in order to have a full, meaningful life.

close up view of orange jasper beads with silk green knots between to showcase and protect beads

The guru bead (teacher in Sanskrit) or meru bead (mountain in Sanskrit) is the  109th bead and the focal bead in a mala design. It represents the master teacher, and deserves respect. The tassel represents one's connection to Source, and to each other. It is an important symbol of interconnection. 

close up view of carved wooden guru and silk green tassel

The Steps: 

1. Hold your mala in your right hand. When making your way around the mala, be sure to use your right thumb and middle finger, or your right thumb and ring finger. Avoid using the index finger as it is connected to judgement and ego (we tend to point with this finger), and we want to keep the ego out of our practice.

use right thumb and middle finger to gently press each bead in mala

2. Begin with the bead that is closest to the guru bead and to the right of the guru bead. As you hold onto this bead with your right thumb and middle or ring finger, think, say, whisper, sing, or chant the mantra of your choice.

I am a big, big fan of agency--so, choose a mantra that works best for you. It can be a classic Sanskrit mantra, such as Om Shanti Om. It can be the very famous Tibetan mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. It can also be an affirmation, phrase, single word, or prayer. It's YOUR practice. Choose a mantra that is meaningful for you.

3. Make your way around the mala, one bead at a time, infusing each bead with the energy of the mantra that you have selected. Remember, each bead receives the full mantra--not individual syllables or part of the mantra. Take your time, be present, and enjoy the journey.

use the right thumb and middle or ring fingers to make your way around the mala.

 Note: If you select a really short mantra, and you decide once you've made your way around the circuit, you want to go around again, that's fine. Just be sure not to cross over the teacher bead or guru bead. Remember, the guru bead deserves respect, and you don't want to cross your teacher. Instead, go back the way you came, which requires a simple turn of the hand.

You decide how many circuits to complete. If you're working with a longer mantra, one trip around may be enough. But, it's your practice. You can make your way around the mala as many times as you like. Just be sure not to cross over the teacher bead.

Finally, if you're new to this practice, I highly recommend that you explore and stick with one mantra for at least 40 days. Take time to practice every day, for forty days, with one mantra. Maybe keep a little notebook handy to write down your thoughts and observations after each session, or at the end of each day--just a few quick notes. Then, at the end of the 40 days, take a few minutes to reflect over your observations and note the changes that occurred.

write observations in a small notebook after you practice

Personally, when I first started my daily mantra practice, I worked with a different mantra every 40 days for a year and a half. Keeping a small notebook for these 40-day cycles was extremely helpful for me. Then, when I found a mantra that I wanted to work with for a longer period of time (for example, I worked with the long Gayatri mantra every day for four years), this initial practice with shorter mantras for short periods of time proved to be extremely helpful. It also motivated me to keep working with the longer mantra over a longer period of time.

I hope this blog post is useful for those of you who may be beginning a daily practice, but also for those who are experienced practitioners.

 If you're wondering about what mantras to use, these sources were extremely helpful for me:

Ashley-Farrand, Thomas. Healing Mantras: Using Sound Affirmations for Personal Power, Creativity, and Healing. New York: Ballantine Wellspring, 1999. Print.

Kaivalya, Alana. Sacred Sound: Discovering the Myth and Meaning of Mantra and Kirtan. Novato: New World Library, 2014. Print.

 I hope you continue to learn and grow from your own personal daily mantra practice. Please consider purchasing a Middle Moon Malas design to enhance your practice. I create one-of-a-kind mala designs, so the collection is always changing, evolving, and expanding. Click HERE to view the current collection. 

 

 


Meditation Is Great and All...But Meaningful Action Is Required for Meaningful Change May 31, 2022 14:46

The word "Change" in bright orange neon against a dark background

If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE for the audio link.

 

The news has been especially dismal lately. The war in Ukraine is still raging, as are the wild fires in New Mexico. Between the shortage of baby formula due to a recall and supply chain backlog, a hate-filled gunman who murdered ten people in a Buffalo, NY grocery store, and another gunman who murdered nineteen fourth graders and two teachers in a horrific school shooting in Uvalde, TX, it has been one hell of a week!

There's certainly plenty to be sad and angry about--and plenty of my friends are fired up and venting their frustrations on social media.

Some are sharing celebrity tweets and memes. Others are link-dumping news articles. A few, who proudly announce that they don't watch the news, prefer to post vague, judgey commentary about how awful the world is...and how much better off they are by not paying attention to it.

Don't get me wrong--taking in too much negative news stories--or watching the same distressing stories on repeat can be extremely dysregulating and unhealthy. It's too easy to slip into despair and hopelessness while marinating in bad news.

On the other hand, refusing to watch any credible news at all is willful ignorance, which is just as problematic. Ignoring significant world events won't make them go away, and it won't make anyone more spiritual or superior, either. Unfortunately, it can indicate righteous selfishness and privilege on parade.

There has to be a better way... for all of us!!

Last month, I wrote about the benefits of sitting with unpleasant emotions, and I still believe that this is a good first step. However, meditation alone isn't enough to solve big problems like war, systemic racism, poverty, and gun violence.

Big problems like these can be extremely overwhelming and daunting; they can give rise to feelings of hopelessness, despair, and apathy.

Big problems can't be solved quickly, either, and they can't be solved by a single person or even a single group of people. Often, they require time and the persistent, patient focus and effort of many. The good news is, we can all contribute to meaningful progress and positive change.

Small steps matter. Small gestures matter. Every thought and action has consequences and creates a ripple effect. Even small acts of compassion can have a significant impact on others. By doing what we can, when we can, wherever we are, we pave the way for meaningful progress.

For example, I have a friend in Minnesota who spent several hours the other day planting beautiful flowers in her garden. She spent her morning planting lilies, marigolds, and roses. She can't stop the destruction in Ukraine, or the wild fires in New Mexico, but she is tending to what she can, where she is. By doing so, she is fostering beauty and joy in her own back yard, and this doesn't just benefit her and her family; it uplifts her entire neighborhood.

One of the students I have been tutoring this semester volunteers regularly at a local food bank. He can't solve the supply chain backlog or prevent product recalls, but he can stock shelves with donated food and dedicate his time and effort to help local families put food on their tables.

My friend in Ohio can't solve systemic racism on her own, but she recently posted an honest acknowledgment of her own white privilege--how she has benefited from racism, is deeply ashamed of this, but now that she's aware of it, she is committed to using her privilege to bring about positive change in society. She posts book reviews and recommendations of books written by black authors and books that address the issue of racial injustice. She's educating herself and sharing what she's learning with others to foster awareness and promote progress.

I may not be able to solve the gun violence crisis in America--and won't be able to prevent the next horrific school shooting, but I did contact the senators in my state (Indiana) and communicated to them how important common sense gun laws, red flag laws, and stringent background checks are (along with banning assault rifles). After I sent the emails, I felt a little relief afterwards--I did SOMETHING.  I didn't give up, and I didn't turn away. I'm also looking into supporting local advocacy groups such as Moms Demand Action. 

Recently, I participated in an online Metta vigil led by Sharon Salzberg from the Insight Meditation Society. 

She explained that hopelessness is extremely dangerous--and that practicing Metta is meaningful action and a powerful adventure in attention.

Over 900 participants joined her in this online practice. It was an excellent session, and a beautiful meditation.

(I've written about the practice of Metta recently. If you haven't already read or listened to the September blog article: Estrangement and the Power of Metta, it describes this practice in greater detail and includes a short practice as well.)

 We don't have to don a superhero's cape to make a difference in this world. Start where you are, and do what you can with what you know. Acts of kindness and generosity don't have to be dramatic, remarkable, or far-reaching to have an impact.

The more we can be of help and be of service to others, the positive ripples of change will continue to expand and benefit more and more beings. Meaningful change begins with simple, heartfelt action as well as having the courage to face and be present with what is. After all, during these challenging times, we cannot afford to give up or to turn away.   

 

Thanks for reading or listening this month. If you haven't visited the Middle Moon Malas online shop in a while, I have added several new designs to the website. 

May you be happy; may you be healthy; may you be safe; may you live with ease.

 

(Photo credit: Ross Findon courtesy of Unsplash)

 

 

 


Sitting with Annoyance: The Process of Transformation April 28, 2022 10:09

 

(Image: wind on water with reflections of prayer flags, the lotus pond at TMBCC in Bloomington)

If you prefer to listen to this article, please click HERE for the audio link.

Recently, I traveled to Bloomington to listen to a Dharma talk. It was a beautiful spring day, and the teaching was both compelling and profound. Even though the content was philosophical in nature and a bit intellectually challenging, I was able to understand the gist of it. The talk was both meaningful and wonderful, as usual.

Typically, at the end of each Dharma talk, Geshe Kunga asks for questions and follow-up comments. One student followed up with a brief comment, which was relevant and useful.

However, another student, who has been absent from these weekly teachings for over two years, and who hasn't been following them online, interrupted Geshe Kunga's response to the first student's comment in order to make her random, disorganized, rambling comment--or question--or challenge to the first student's comment (I couldn't tell which). Her interruption went on for several minutes, and I could feel the irritation and frustration rising in my body.

Kudos to Geshe Kunga--he took the time to listen patiently and respond politely to this student's word vomit; however, I was quietly fuming.

The contrast between a clear commentary about an incredibly complex philosophical subject (by the way, we are reading and discussing the tail end of Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun by Nam-Kha Pel) and a rambling refutation laced with unrelated metaphors and, what seemed to me to be a self-indulgent cry for attention, was too much for me.

This student (who I will refer to as A.D.S.--annoying Dharma student), from my vantage point, seemed to be needy, grippy, clingy, and desperate to make up for lost time and missed classes.

I'm not gonna lie--this individual pushes my buttons. Not only is she loud and aggressive, she's quick to anger, and she's prone to bullying. She tends to twist and distort the words of others to serve herself, and she's pushy, domineering, and very, very annoying to me. 

Consequently, her long-winded, convoluted, needy-baby-greedy-baby rant pushed my patience to the limit.

 After the dedication and closing prayers, several students and I helped clean up the temple (while A.D.S. continued to elaborate and justify her comments with the first student--again--loudly enough for the entire temple to hear). 

I didn't stay to chat with others, like usual--instead, I left abruptly (I'm not even going to go on about how she didn't bother to help put away cushions and chairs after class, which is a pet peeve of mine, especially for experienced students who attend teachings regularly and who know where these things go--don't even get me started--that's another blog for another time :).

Instead of focusing on the profound and meaningful teaching on my drive home, my amygdala had been hijacked, and I was laser-focused on my frustration with A.D.S.

By the time I arrived home, I decided to embark upon an experiment. I was motivated to sit with this annoying situation in meditation sessions for the rest of the week. It was the perfect opportunity to apply the teachings, and I was curious about what the end result would be. 

I committed to sit for at least thirty minutes each day to think about this triggering situation and my reactions to A.D.S, to observe the thoughts and feelings that would unfold over the course of the week, and to take a little time to write about and reflect on any observations. Here are the results of this experiment:

+++++++

Monday: Empathy  

* I know what it's like to feel out of place, but also desperately wanting to belong or to be accepted. I know what it's like to say ANYTHING, even if it doesn't make sense--or it is too raw, harsh, insensitive, or unsophisticated. I know what it's like to say ANYTHING in the hopes of fitting in--even if it risks pushing everyone away.

* I know what it's like to be in a place that makes me feel safe--but that I don't feel worthy enough to be there. So, to compensate, I come to that space radiating insecurity, awkwardness, and uncertainty, which is often off-putting.

* I know what it's like to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and uncertain when coming back to a place that was important to me--a place that I had left for a time, but then returned. I know how it feels to have missed out on important conversations and events--to have missed out on the natural evolutions and changes that participants experienced--to feel left out of the loop and disconnected. I know how it feels to doubt how I will be received when returning to these places.

* I know what it's like to act like a cringeworthy fool--not to be foolish or funny--but to seek attention in an obnoxious, juvenile way--because it was the only way I knew how to express my need for attention.

* I know what it's like to feel nervous, and, as a result, overshare or spew incoherent, repetitive nonsense. What's worse--I know what it's like to be aware that I'm doing this, but can't seem to stop the flow of the word vomit.

Reflecting on times when I behaved in the same ways that I perceived A.D.S. to have behaved helped soften the frustration and anger. Empathy was paving the way for compassion.

Tuesday: The Willingness to Listen

Knowing when to speak and when to listen are powerful forms of discernment.

Hold space for the brash, loud voice. Let it quiver and cackle and crack until it winds down to a hoarse whisper--and finally, to a rumbling, sputtering, awkward silence.

Are you moving away from self-grasping, or are you hurtling toward it?

Listen to the ache of wanting to belong--the desire to take without the wish to give back.

Hold space for the broken, the desperate, the fundamentally confused.

Even when you're tired, filled with heavy thoughts and future obligations...

Hold space and listen.

Drift toward silent compassion--the willingness to embrace and accept  undisciplined ramblings for what they are...without expectation, without the hope of resolution, without judgement and cruel critique. 

Just listen... and hold space. This, too, is meaningful service.

 Wednesday: Physical Symptoms

As this week-long analytical experiment progressed, I started to notice some interesting physical symptoms occurring in my body.

* During the day of the teaching and the subsequent "annoyance," my left eye would not stop watering.  It came and went for a few days afterwards. Warm compresses and eye drops brought some relief, but it would flare up from time to time--like during this evening's session.

* Stuffiness--and a persistent ringing in both ears.

* Left arm pain--weakness and sharp, intermittent pain shooting from the left bicep all the way down to the wrist and hand. I have been dealing with a "frozen shoulder" for several months, and I have noticed that stress exacerbates the pain and discomfort.

* Two painful blisters had erupted on the skin above my left collar bone. These were most likely caused by kinesiology tape that my PT placed on my shoulder a few days days prior. I had removed the tape earlier, but the blisters began to sting and itch during the meditation session.

* I experienced a sharp, stabbing sensation on the my right shoulder blade--similar to a burning sensation just underneath the skin. This was a new sensation--there's nothing wrong with my right shoulder.

All of these physical symptoms occurred during the meditation session. Some of the symptoms were connected to sensory organs (the left eye, the ears). This could represent a resistance to looking at and listening to what was coming up in the session, or the initial annoyance. The left side of the body represents the feminine aspect--it also symbolizes the ability to receive. Blisters... unexpressed anger. Shoulder and arm discomfort... carrying the weight of a burden. Sensitive nerves...agitation and frustration getting under the skin.

My body was communicating to me clearly, and by taking the time to sit with this physical discomfort, to acknowledge these sensations without judgment, concern, or panic, I was able to receive the wisdom and to let go of the physical and metaphorical anger, frustration, and distress until these pesky symptoms eventually subsided. And they did--after just a few minutes.

 Thursday: Evidence of Transformation

Over the course of the past two years, I have deepened my Buddhist practice. I attended online teachings during the lockdown, and when the temple eventually reopened, I made the hour-long commute every Sunday.

My practice has been a life raft for me during the pandemic, and continues to be an important part of my life. The temple feels like home now. When I first started to attend the teachings, I felt like a visitor--a welcome one--but a visitor, nonetheless.

Now, I feel a sense of meaningful connection--a sense of belonging. I don't have to try too hard or go out of my way to feel a sense of affinity. I no longer feel anxious or afraid that I would say something dumb or do something that would inadvertently offend someone. 

I am more calm and at ease when I am in this place, and I want others to feel this way when they come here, too.

The essence of Dharma practice is to transform the mind. To transform it from a state of ignorance, anger, and attachment to a state that is calm and cares about others.

This situation has turned out to be a karmic quiz for me--to assess how far I've come in my own practice--and where I want to go.

Friday: Reflect and Rejoice

After several days of sitting and allowing thoughts and feelings to rise, fall, and drift, I have come to a few interesting conclusions:

* Even though, in the grand scheme of things, this annoyance was extremely minor, it's amazing how small, unexpected things can trigger strong reactions.

* My reaction to this situation has absolutely nothing to do with A.D.S. However, it has everything to do with me and my own state of mind. The good news is, my state of mind is fluid and capable of positive change and transformation.

* Sitting with an annoyance like this gives me opportunities to practice patience and to generate genuine compassion for myself and others.

* This week-long process helped me clearly realize how intricately connected the physical body is to emotions. My mind and my body were processing this situation, and, by the end of the week, both were calmer and steadier as a result of this experiment.

* Having the courage to embark on this experiment and then write this article is not only an example of sacred action, but it is also a reason to rejoice. It's evidence that my meditation practice is working--it's fostering positive growth and compassion, it's a catalyst for healing, and it's an indication of spiritual maturity. These are all reasons to celebrate.

 * I am grateful to A.D.S. for giving me the opportunity to practice and engage in this analytical experiment. 

+++++++

 There is a very good chance that I will see A.D.S. in the next couple of days when I return to Bloomington for the next Dharma teaching. She may even read or listen to this article.

I'm not anxious about either of these possibilities--nor am I dreading them. I feel open-hearted and receptive. I'm looking forward to learning more, and I'm confident enough to face whatever thoughts and emotions may surface. I know that, if needed, I can sit with them, too--and respond appropriately.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read or listen to this month's blog post. I hope it was helpful, and I hope it encourages you to continue to learn and grow as you embark on your own meditation experiments and practices.

 

While you're here, please check out the current MMM collection of hand-knotted malas. Several new designs have been added recently: middlemoonmalas.com.


Tending and Attending: Spring Cleaning as a Practice March 26, 2022 13:49

close up view of broom bristles

If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE for the audio link.

 

It's that time of year again--Spring is here! Birds are busy building their nests, and I am busy cleaning mine.  I'm on Spring Break this week, and this is an ideal time for deep cleaning.

A few days ago, I deep cleaned our living room. I was on a mission!

I dusted the tables, lamps, framed photos, I vacuumed the couch and chairs, pushed all of the furniture to the middle of the room so I could sweep the baseboards, I corralled dust bunnies and a few dead stink bugs, mopped every corner and square inch, scooched the furniture back in place, and collapsed in exhaustion...

This. Was. A. Chore! It was a "have to," and I did not enjoy the process. While I was cleaning, my thoughts were scattered (much like the fluffy dust bunnies). I was thinking about other things that I needed to do later--or things that I would rather do besides clean the living room. I thought about my friends who were vacationing in warm, seaside climates and grew resentful. Ugh!

Even though the room looked great afterwards, and I was glad that I had taken the time to clean it (all two hours of it), I wasn't really satisfied. My mind was agitated rather than calm, and my body was exhausted rather than energized.

This is the result of striving. Striving comes from a place of "have to" rather than "want to." Striving is motivated by obligation and ego; it's an operation of "should." It's a product of pushing and forcing rather than allowing. My mind was definitely not attentive to any part of the process in this cleaning adventure. I was just hurrying to get it done--and that's no way to live.

close up image of dust pan and small broom

 Yesterday, I fell into cleaning the kitchen, which is adjacent to the living room. I didn't plan it ahead of time. I had wandered into the kitchen in my pajamas to make some juice (carrot, Granny Smith apple, and ginger). As I sat at the table, I noticed crumbs and a few stains on my placemat.

After drinking my juice, I cleared the table. I was present with what I was doing, I wasn't in a hurry, and I was tending to one thing at a time. I started with the mail that seems to magically accumulate, sorting bills out of the junk mail and miscellaneous catalogues. I tossed the stained placemats in the laundry basket, wiped the table with a clean washcloth, sorted spices and vitamins that we keep on trivets, and put fresh placemats on the table.

I could have stopped there at that point, but I liked how the table looked, and I liked how I felt. I was clear-headed and present. I was mindful, alert, and gently focused. I wasn't thinking about later--instead, I was tending to right now, to this present moment. As a result, I kept going.

I moved a huge planter that was taking up valuable cabinet space to the porch. Then, I cleaned the cabinet space, wiping away a few dead leaves and bits of potting soil.

Then, I moved the chairs into the hall, along with anything else that was on the floor--a trash can, a pair of shoes, Jim's heavy duty lunch box, so I could sweep the floor. I moved with ease and with a calm mind as I brushed the crumbs and dust to the center of the floor. All that mattered was what was happening in the moment. I was aware of the broom handle in my hands, the texture, the cool temperature of metal against my palms and fingers. I was aware of the sounds the bristles made as they brushed across the floor. It was an embodied experience.

I brushed the dust and crumbs into a dust pan, filled a container with warm water, a few drops of dish soap, a splash of vinegar, and a few drops of essential oils (Lemon and Siberian Fir). I took my time as I mopped the floor. I enjoyed the smell of citrus and earthy pine as I made my way around the kitchen.

What started as a simple observation--stains and crumbs on a placemat--turned into a practical exercise in functional mindfulness. I wasn't agitated or exhausted afterwards. Instead, I was calm and energized, and I had enjoyed the process. I was curious and had a gentle, playful attitude. I was very aware of my body moving through the room and was attentive to sensory details--textures, smells, colors, temperatures.

I had been tending, rather than forcing. I had been attentive, rather than scattered and harried. I had enjoyed the sights, sounds, and sensations rather than bypassing them with distracted thoughts.

The result was the same--I had a clean kitchen to show for my efforts, but because my efforts were relaxed and rooted in gentle awareness, I was able to appreciate and enjoy each part of the process. It wasn't a chore, rooted in ego with a destination or agenda, or a "have to"--it was a pleasant, mindful, moving meditation.

And what's more, I didn't even bother to look at the clock to see how long this took. I had forgotten about the time!

I did a lot more than clean my kitchen yesterday. This experience was a wonderful reminder that meditation practice does not just occur on a cushion. It can happen anywhere. The key ingredients are a relaxed mindset and a gentle, but attentive focus.

Early this morning, I listened to Brené Brown's Dare to Lead podcast with guest Amishi Jha, neurologist and author of Peak Mind. (Here's the link to her episode: Finding Focus and Owning Your Attention)

They discussed the relevance, importance, and value of mindfulness and meditation--and specifically, how these practices can impact focus and memory.

I liked the metaphor that Jha used comparing the mind to a flashlight. The mind can really only focus on one thing at a time, but the mind is also wired for wandering. Consequently, practices like mindfulness, meditation, mantra recitations, etc. can help to gently shine the light of attention where you need to and redirect it easily if it strays.

We're all works in progress, and I am actively working on bringing a more mindful focus to what I do more often during the day--to tend and attend with awareness and ease.

The time I spend on my cushion and the time I spend with mantra practice help me to recharge the batteries of my own "flashlight," especially when I feel the urge to strive and force my way through the day.

 

Spring is an ideal time to renew your personal practice. If you haven't had an opportunity to check out the full collection of Middle Moon Malas, please do! Several beautiful new hand-knotted malas have been added to the online shop.

 

 


Spiritual Maturity: A Journey from Woo-Woo to Wisdom February 17, 2022 10:45

 stack of books with a pair of reading glasses on the top and a mala on a glass desk top, a smiling Buddha statue sits off to the left

 If you prefer to listen to this article, please click here for the link.

 

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.

 


Bossa Nova Snowfall: Everyday Rhythms of Practice January 28, 2022 15:27

Maya watching snow falling through storm door in winter 

 If you prefer to listen to this month's blog post, please click here for the link.

I have "Waters of March" rolling around in my head (the Portuguese version). A friend of mine recently shared a Dust to Digital video of the duet with the composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Elis Regina singing it in a studio in 1974.

I remember hearing this song as a kid, but I didn't think about the lyrics that much, mainly because I don't speak Portuguese. I remember my stepdad had a collection of jazz albums in the stereo console that he kept in the living room. This song was included in an album called Bossa Nova's Greatest Hits.

"Waters of March" is a happy melody, and now that we are lucky enough to have access to Google, I was able to search for the lyrics in English. It reads like a beautiful list poem, and the rhythms flow, like water from beginning to end:

A stick, a stone, it's the end of the road
It's the rest of a stump, it's a little alone
It's a sliver of glass, it is life, it's the sun
It is night, it is death, it's a trap, it's a gun
The oak when it blooms, a fox in the brush
A knot in the wood, the song of a thrush
The wood of the wind, a cliff, a fall
A scratch, a lump, it is nothing at all
It's the wind blowing free, it's the end of the slope
It's a beam, it's a void, it's a hunch, it's a hope
And the river bank talks of the waters of March
It's the end of the strain, it's the joy in your heart
The foot, the ground, the flesh and the bone
The beat of the road, a slingshot's stone
A fish, a flash, a silvery glow
A fight, a bet, the flange of a bow
The bed of the well, the end of the line
The dismay in the face, it's a loss, it's a find
A spear, a spike, a point, a nail
A drip, a drop, the end of the tale
A truckload of bricks in the soft morning light
The sound of a gun in the dead of the night
A mile, a must, a thrust, a bump,
It's a girl, it's a rhyme, it's a cold, it's the mumps
The plan of the house, the body in bed
And the car that got stuck, it's the mud, it's the mud
A float, a drift, a flight, a wing
A hawk, a quail, the promise of spring
And the river bank talks of the waters of March
It's the promise of life, it's the joy in your heart
A snake, a stick, it is John, it is Joe
It's a thorn on your hand and a cut in your toe
A point, a grain, a bee, a bite
A blink, a buzzard, a sudden stroke of night
A pin, a needle, a sting, a pain
A snail, a riddle, a wasp or a stain
A pass in the mountains, a horse and a mule
In the distance the shelves rode three shadows of blue
And the river bank talks of the waters of March
It's the promise of life in your heart, in your heart
A stick, a stone, the end of the road
The rest of a stump, a lonesome road
A sliver of glass, a life, the sun
A knife, a death, the end of the run
And the river bank talks of the waters of March
It's the end of all strain, it's the joy in your heart
Songwriters: Antonio Carlos Jobim / Jorge Calandrelli
Águas De Março lyrics © Corcovado Music Corp.
***

(if you're curious, listen to the recording in Portuguese here

In essence, it's a song about appreciating the present moment, no matter what's going on around you. It's about the ordinary, mundane images of daily life, and the inevitable journey towards death, just as the rains of March mark the end of a Brazilian summer.

 ***

This morning, Maya and I were sitting in front of the storm door watching snow fall.

It's a light, fluffy snow that collects on branches, sticks on the bricks of the walkway in loose, fat flakes.

It had already covered the morning offerings of birdseed and coated the face of our resin Buddha statue.

Cardinals, juncos, chickadees, and wrens hop and flit about. Their wings flutter, bodies in flight--and at rest.

The deliberate staccato rhythms of a pileated woodpecker echo from a nearby oak tree.

 I can hear the ticking of ductwork expanding and contracting with steady heat rising from the vent in the floor. It competes with the cold pressing against the glass door.

We moved to the living room a few minutes later. Maya is snoring on my lap, and Zora is perched on the back of the love seat. She has a close-up view of the falling snow from the French doors behind it.

Bare branches, light wind, swirling spiral patterns on sage green pillows.

The hum of the furnace, the ringing in my ears, the stiffness in my shoulder.

The soft touch of warm fur--orange and black--like those wooly caterpillars in late summer.

Silk lotus blossoms in a striped bowl, a silent grandmother clock.

Bare feet, cold floor, the rise and fall of soft bellies.

Snow flakes falling in straight lines.

Cream colored curtains, a plaid shirt, dried flecks of paint on navy sweat pants.

Abandoned spider silk between adjoining walls--temporary hypotenuse. 

Empty vase, copper bell, wooden elephants--share a dusty table with framed faces and photo albums.

The effortless acceptance of Now.

***

These observations don't rhyme, and they don't follow the unconventional cords, innovative syncopation, and jazzy rhythms of Bossa nova.

However, practice doesn't have to be formal. It doesn't even have to happen on a cushion, and it can occur at any moment.

Take a few moments today to notice what's happening around you, wherever you are. Without attachment, grasping, or commentary--just be present--observe, breathe, and be.

This, too, is practice.

***

I have added several malas and quarter malas to the online shop. Check out the current collection here. Middle Moon Malas serves to inspire meaningful practice and to support your motivation to lead a kind, compassionate, and mindful life.