Tag Archives: Buddhism

A calm clear mind

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If only my mind could always feel the way it does in meditation. Yesterday I was practising one of my preparatory kriyas in which my eyes are open on the inbreath and then gently close as I lower my head down towards Mooladhara chakra, internalising my awareness through the descending energy pathway. During this practice I noticed a small spider had sat on my lap and stayed there quite happily and unmoving for the rest of my practice (at least that part of my practice for which my eyes were open – he had wandered off by the end of my meditation).

I’m sure the small size and the stillness of this particular spider aided the calmness that pervaded my practice, and it may well have been a different story if a large,  fast-moving creature had decided to join me, but I like to think that my meditating mind would have not reacted any differently than to just continue my practice until the end. The oneness I could honestly and happily experience with such a tiny and clearly non-threatening creature exists between us all,  even if it is harder to see with the things/animals/ people we label as bad or scary,  the things we have an aversion to. In truth, when we are in meditation and our mind has calmed down, our aversions are not as great as they normally are, and our attachments to the good are not as strong.  And so our reactions become less extreme; we are able to accept our situation with greater composure. Our fears are less crippling, our emotions generally are more measured. With regular practice,  too, this calmer approach carries over into our daily lives, the effects lasting longer and longer away from our meditation as we nurture the mind and allow it to rest from our habitual responses.

And it doesn’t only have to be traditional meditation practices which can confer this kind of calmness and acceptance.  I often feel this same sense of the underlying rightness, the connection between us all, when I am giving a treatment or teaching – both times when it would be inappropriate in any case for me to allow my own issues to get in the way. This was extremely helpful when I was giving a reflexology treatment several years ago: a bat came to sit on the treatment couch, right next to my hand and, of course, my client’s feet. The sudden movement and appearance of this creature might normally have been enough to make me jump and perhaps make some sort of sound, but I was able to stay very calm and alert my client (who had his eyes closed so had no idea there was a bat next to his foot!), so that he didn’t move whilst I carefully moved the bat away – not entirely bravely, when it hissed at me!

When I was at university studying  Social Anthropology, many years ago, I wrote in an assignment that the belief system of a particularly peaceful group of Buddhists meant that the principle of non-harm or interference with other creatures even led people to move out of their houses rather than remove a poisonous snake which had taken up residence.  I am now a little ashamed of the way my own incredulity crept in to my writing on that occasion – I richly deserved the slightly sarcastic comment from my lecturer humorously scribbled in the margin of ‘now, now, what’s that lovely cobra ever done to you?’ I am sure this opened my eyes to remaining traces of  ethnocentricity in my approach and in my thinking, but I think it is only with increasing maturity and my developing meditation practice that I can understand more fully how respect for the oneness between all creatures could lead us to take the path of least resistance and, rather than make a huge fuss, simply remove ourselves quietly until the danger has passed.

This is something we can all do as we increase our consciousness of our learnt, habitual responses and realise there might be another way.  If we imagine the mind to be like a sheet of fabric stretched taut, we can allow our unchecked ways of thinking and reacting to thunder on that fabric like rain on a tent roof. Or we can try to tame the mind through our practice, creating some space between the events of our lives and our reactions to them, so that they become less disturbing – perhaps more like a feather floating down to land on that fabric, with barely an impact or a sound.

If only my mind could always feel the way it does in meditation……
It can, of course, and that way lies a calmer and a happier life.

Blue Monday

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Today is Blue Monday, the Monday which is supposed to be the most depressing of the entire year to come.  Several years ago, the third Monday of January was decided upon for this dubious honour, after taking into account the weather and the time still to wait for spring, the time since Christmas and the debt we may have accumulated over the festive period, as well as – for many of us – having had long enough to have given up on our New Year resolutions.  But as I wrote in a recent post, we can resolve on positive change at any time of the year, so we can start anew at any time that suits us – and spring is often a great time for doing just that, when we have the whole of nature joining with us!

And as for the weather, well it is snowy and cold, but it IS January, and it could be a lot worse!  I am definitely in the wrong country for year-round blue skies, but I like the variety of the weather through the seasons, which is often echoed in our own mental states.  It isn’t all that realistic to expect to be happy all the time, and in fact our pursuit of happiness may be what causes us the most distress.  We try to hold on to the things which we perceive as making us happy, whilst pushing away those things which make us miserable.  But to experience true moments of joy, we  need to embrace all aspects of our lives, not just those we label as ‘good’.  We have to have winter as well as summer, we need Mondays to follow the weekends, and life cannot be one long holiday for the vast majority of us.  And so true happiness involves acceptance and an ability to flow through the seasons as well as allowing our feelings to come and go without trying to hold on to the moments of happiness.  In ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’, journalist  Oliver Burkeman questions the validity of happiness as a goal, being as chasing after happiness can make us so unhappy.  This insight is fundamental to the practice of both yoga and Buddhism, and perhaps we would find happiness easier to achieve if we practised acceptance of all our states of mind,  of  all the events of our lives, not just those we label as good, but of those we might initially consider ‘bad’ as well.  We would likely achieve a more balanced and calmer mind, and that in itself can lead to greater contentment with our lives.

The symbol of the lotus

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lotus-587335_1280Back in the summer, I visited Kew Gardens for the first time.  One of the -very many- fascinating things I learned there was that the lotus flower, although in appearance quite similar to the water lily (which is a much more common sight here in England!), is in fact closely related to the plane tree, which grows to up to 50 metres high!

An aquatic perennial with large showy flowers, the sacred lotus has long been considered a close relative of water lilies. However, lotus flowers differ markedly from those of water lilies, most notably through the obconical (ice-cream cone-shaped) receptacle in the centre, into which numerous free carpels are sunken. Recent molecular research has shown that the closest living relatives of the sacred lotus are the plane trees (Platanus spp., Platanaceae) and members of the protea family (Proteaceae). Their isolated phylogenetic position indicates that both Nelumboand Platanus may be living fossils (the only survivors of an ancient and formerly much more diverse group).

                  ~  http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Nelumbo-nucifera.htm

The lotus flower is held as a sacred symbol by yogis, as well as by  Buddhists and Hindus.  Its rhizomes grow from the mud at the bottom of a lake and rise up above the surface of the water, so that its stalks may be as much as 1 or 2 metres tall.  In yoga, each chakra is symbolized by a lotus flower, of different colours and with different numbers of petals for each chakra.  For Sahasrara, the crown chakra, the lotus is said to have thousand petals, although this may also be interpreted as meaning an infinite number (Swami Satyananda Saraswati, ‘Kundalini Tantra’ (1984), p 189). 

The symbol of the lotus flower is highly relevant to those of us working through our chakras.  Just as the seed germinates in the mud at the bottom of the lake, we begin in the dark, and in the earth of our base chakra (Mooladhara).  We then strive to ascend through the different chakras, through our energy system, developing and growing along the way, just as the stalk of the lotus ascends through the water, until we reach the air above the water, coming into the light of the sun, and into our true potential in the higher energy centres.  The element of the air is found at the heart centre, Anahata, and this is where we first start to really change as a result of our yoga and meditation practice.  Anahata is the centre of our energy system, and acts as a transitional point between the lower chakras (Mooladhara, Swadisthana and Manipura) and the higher chakras (Vishuddhi, Ajna, Bindu and Sahasrara).  At the heart we find it easier to truly commit to our yoga practice, and as Swami Radhananda says,
‘If you really set your heart on your higher goal in life, your commitment can lift you out of the merry-go-round of the first three Cakras’ 
Swami Radhananda (2010) ‘Living the Practice’
And so we reach up to the light through our yoga practice, just as the lotus flower reaches up to the surface of the water, and finally blooms in all its beauty.  If we persevere and commit to our practice, it will lift us up to our true potential. 

 

Exchanging ourselves for another

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Everyone has heard, at some point in their lives, the advice that they should  ‘think of someone worse off than themselves’.  It’s not always welcome, and it’s not always that easy to do.  Our own pain, whether physical or emotional, can be so overwhelming that it can be hard to imagine anything worse.  Unintentionally, we are frequently rendered more selfish, more self-absorbed, by our own suffering.

But if we can, for one moment, put that pain aside, we will be able to see that, yes, indeed, there are many others who are in worse pain, who are suffering more than we are.  So we have a choice. We can allow our own suffering to shut us off from others, or we can use it to connect more deeply with the trials of those around us.  To acknowledge our common humanity.  To realise that even those who we feel ‘have it all’, will be struggling with their own private demons.

And so the first step is to not run away from our pain, but to look straight at it. To really see it for what it is.  To truly feel our emotions and to stay with them.  If we are sad, to really be sad, not to shut it away and numb ourselves with something else.  If we are angry, to experience how that anger makes us feel, without acting it out – yes, it’s hard!

And then we can start to think of others who are feeling the same thing – in their own way, and their own circumstances, yes, but just to acknowledge that there are others who we know, as well as millions who we don’t know, who are suffering  the same despair, fear, anger – whatever it is.  Millions of people experiencing their own pain.

And this is not just a logical, mental acknowledgement, it is an emotional process.  We feel our own pain, and we feel that of everyone else.  And, ironically, this can help to strengthen us in our own time of need.  We are not alone in our suffering any longer.  We no longer feel so helpless.  We are more able to extend ourselves to help others.

Because strength isn’t all about solidity, it’s about softness.  In Dru yoga, we soften the joints, even in ‘strong’ postures, so that we don’t block energy from flowing freely around the body.  Whilst we move from a strong core, we maintain a fluidity of movement through the body, learning where to soften and let go.  True strength comes from flowing through our lives with courage and determination, not from standing still and building up the walls between ourselves and those around us. Knowing when to accept help from others, and when to offer it. It can be wonderful to feel the effects of a beautiful yoga posture or sequence – but even more wonderful to send those benefits to someone who is in need of them –  whether or  not they are capable of accessing them for themselves.  When I teach Energy Block Release 3 in my class, a profound heart-opening sequence, we always pause at the end, hands in Namaste, to experience the peace generated by the movements, and each of us is then able to ‘send out’ that peace to anyone who comes to mind in that moment.

The Buddhist practice of tonglen is the exchange of ourselves for another. It reverses our natural tendency to run away from what we perceive as bad (suffering) and instead encourages us to embrace it.  It turns our natural tendency to shield ourselves from hurt on its head.  It gives us courage and strength, by allowing us to truly experience our weakness.  As Pema Chodron writes,

‘It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our hearts’

~ Pema Chodron,’When Things Fall Apart’

We start by identifying our pain, and we breathe it in. On our outbreath, we breathe out softness, relief, and send it out.  This is a very powerful practice – instead of saying ‘no’ to what we see as ‘bad’, we say ‘yes, OK, this is how things are’.  We are accepting what is. Then we can think of someone else who is in similar pain – physical or emotional – and we breathe in their pain, too. We allow all this pain to open us, to free us, and we breathe out, softening and sending out this softness to them as well.  We can then move on to everyone who is sad,  angry, has a headache – whatever it may be – and  on our outbreath, send out that relief to them all.

When we have had a disagreement with someone, instead of isolating ourselves and allowing ourselves to make ourselves right and them wrong, we can instead try to breathe in their anger, opening ourselves to their viewpoint, and breathe out the softness, the spaciousness that we find. When we are anxious and troubled about someone, we identify with their pain, making it bigger than our own feelings about them.  We breathe in their pain and send out relief on our outbreath. There really are no limitations to this practise.  Whenever we feel good, we send it out.  Whenever we feel bad, we breathe it in. We can use it in formal meditation practice, or on the spot, whenever we remember.

If you have experience of working with tonglen, I’d love to hear about it.  If you haven’t and decide to give it a try, let me know how you get on.

Loving-kindness

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In Buddhism, as well as in yoga philosophy, there is a term maitri, which means loving-kindness or friendliness.  Imagine someone you hold most dear:  a partner, a parent, a child.  Feel that very simple and uncomplicated love –  an unconditional love which means you love them despite any of their faults;  you want only the best for them;  you talk and act in kindness to them.  This is maitri.

Now try to apply that kind of loving to yourself.  Can you be that kind, that uncritical, that forgiving, that accepting of who you are?  This is something a lot of us find hard to do.  What kind of language do you use when you talk to yourself?  Do you call yourself names, do you criticise yourself and laugh at your own dreams?  There are plenty of others who will do that for you.

Now think about someone in your life who is difficult, someone who is tricky to get along with.  Can you apply this  loving-kindness to them?  Hard, isn’t it?!  And yet this is something we all need to try to become a more loving, caring and peaceful society.

Buddhists practise meditations in which they expand their ability to love, from their most dearly loved, through to themselves, their friends and neighbours, to those they have no strong feelings about either way – they don’t love them but they have no negative feelings about them either. Only when this feels easier do they start to expand their circle of loving-kindness even wider – to those truly difficult people in life, and to those they have never met.

To apply this practice in our own lives, we start with ourselves , or with our loved ones, and work outwards in ever-increasing circles of love and kindness. We start to see more clearly that others are not so very different from ourselves, and we see the ways in which we make them different – the ways in which we use our attitudes and our beliefs to put a wall around ourselves.  Working gently with ourselves can help us to show more compassion to others as well.   Talking more positively to ourselves, switching off the negative mind-chatter through meditation or yoga practice, can enable us to grow into our true potential.  Cultivating maitri towards ourselves and others is one of the ways that Patanjali recommends for creating a calm and peaceful mind, alongside compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (Samadhi Pada, Sutra 33).

More musings on spring…

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We really are having a beautiful early spring.  I am so enjoying the sunshine and blue skies, and the energy of the new season.  I heard a priest talking on the radio this morning about Lent, and how the meaning of Lent is spring.  How it signifies the death of the old, and the birth of the new.  So many of us give things up for Lent – for me it’s chocolate again this year! – but how many of us take up something new?  Many years ago, I heard someone talking about Lent being an important time to adopt positive changes, rather than denying ourselves something for a matter of weeks, and then simply going back to our old selves.  But this message of Lent, and of the spring, is so often forgotten.

Think of spring cleaning, and we think of cleaning out our homes, but could we take this further and clean out the clutter of our wider lives, our minds, our beliefs, our behaviour patterns?  Could we use the energy of spring to rid ourselves of our outdated opinions and thoughts, could we really die to our old selves, and be reborn?  Could we let go of the old, and see clearly what we need to do to move forward in new, fresh ways?

Buddhist writer Pema Chodron suggests in her book ‘When Things Fall Apart’ that we need to hold our opinions more lightly, to stop ourselves from taking a stand and using our position to alienate and distance ourselves from others. To be less attached to our beliefs.  In ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, we are urged to let go of everything, to let every moment be like a little death.  If we don’t let go of each moment as it happens, then how can the new moment be born?  It is so easy to end up living in the past, dwelling on perceived slights and harms, and to miss the beauty of the moment.

In Jin Shin Jyutsu, the Safety Energy Lock 9, located around the lower shoulder blades, relates to this cycle of life.  Its meaning is ‘let go of the old, receive the new’ and interestingly the next Safety Energy Lock 10 is known as the ‘warehouse of abundance’.  This suggests that by letting go, by letting the natural cycle of life work in us, we will  step into our true nature, one which is truly rich and wonderful.

One way we can work with letting go is by watching and meditating on the breath.  Sitting quietly and just observing the breath flowing in, flowing out.  Allowing ourselves to let go with the outbreath, and then to receive the inbreath – not taking, not reaching and straining with the breath, but simply allowing it to flow in –  and then to leave again.  Letting go of the old breath cleanses the body, and makes space for the new breath to flow in. Similarly, in life, letting go of what no longer serves us allows a breathing space, a place where possibilities are endless, where the more positive has room to flow into our lives.  In pranayama practice, we learn that it is the spaces, the pauses between the inhale and the exhale, where meditation can truly begin.  At first, we work gently, just noticing the pauses, without trying to sustain them in any way.

In ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, Sogyal Rinpoche describes the pause at the end of the outbreath as a profound experience:

‘Each time you breathe out, you are letting go and releasing all your grasping….Each time you breathe out, and before you breathe in again, you will find that there will be a natural gap, as the grasping dissolves.  Rest in that gap, the open space’ 

(Rinpoche 1992: 68-69)

 Every aspect of our lives tends to be full and cluttered, not just our homes, our days, our diaries, but also our mind with its endless chatter, its endless preoccupation with what might happen, what has already happened earlier…it’s easy to miss the present moment.  This is what mindfulness meditation is all about.  Really savouring the moment, feeling yourself walking, cooking, eating, whatever it might be.  Sitting and observing your breath is a wonderful place to start and to embrace the spirit of the season.