June 19, 2012: Begin Again

In meditation circles, there’s a saying, “Begin Again,” to remind ourselves that when we meditate, we are always beginning again. If our minds wander into the territory of planning, or whining, or ruminating, or whatevering, we know that we can always begin again – go back to the focal point, which might be our breath, or a tree outside the window, or a phrase or mantra that we’re repeating to ourselves. I see a corollary when I draw in my journals: I’m always beginning again. I don’t have high expectations that I’ll produce an image that I will particularly like, yet sometimes I do. What magic, this practice of beginning again, I thought, as I drew these Echinacea – purple cone flowers – my favorite of the prairie forbes.

April 22, 2012: On Joy, Part II: Timelessness

Time is an issue when it comes to joy. “To experience joy,” says Tara Brach, clinical psychologist and meditation teacher, “we have to enter into timelessness…we need to expand out and occupy the moment.” When we are constantly thinking there’s not enough time, we’re exerting a pressure that interferes with joy.

I used to teach at a college with a man named Don who also taught Tai Chi. If you had a conversation with him while walking down the hall, you walked at his pace: very, very slowly. When I would tell him how much his pace reminded me that I was constantly in a hurry, he would respond, “There is always plenty of time, Suzanne.” It’s years later, and I’ve moved on from teaching, but when I’m feeling too hurried, I still call up Don’s mantra: “There is always plenty of time.”

Of course he knew that we don’t always have plenty of time. He was teaching me that if it was going to be my habit to think there wasn’t enough time, then I would always be hurrying down that hallway. He was teaching me how to enter into timelessness – helping me prepare the way for joy.

April 15, 2012: On Joy: From the Experts

At ten months old when our grandson, L., came upon something that interested him, whether crawling or side-stepping around sofas, chairs, or someone’s pant legs, he uttered a surprised “Heh!” – which sounded like “Huh, wonder what this is?” combined with a gleeful “I can’t believe I get to examine this!” Later, at fifteen months, his exclamation became a sophisticated: “Wow!” Already, he was an expert in joy.

Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and meditation teacher, says joy is considered a “divine abode” by Buddhists and arises when we open ourselves up to reality – both to beauty and to suffering. It’s characterized by a full openness – a “Yes” to life, no matter what.

We can say yes to what is unpleasant and allow ourselves to feel what we’re feeling. (“Yes, I feel sad about X.”) We can also say yes to what’s pleasant – but without grasping after it. When we try to hold onto something pleasant, Brach reminds us, it usually eludes our grasp. She quotes these lines from poet William Blake: “He who binds to himself a joy does the winged life destroy/But he who kisses the joy as it flies/Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

In order to feel joy, we have to be willing to go with the flow instead of trying to manage the flow. We shift from grasping after our wants and avoiding our fears…to accepting what is – perhaps, like little L., saying “Wow!” to what we encounter.

For more on joy, I recommend spending a few hours in the presence of a toddler. Or check out Tara Brach’s hour-long podcast on “joy” at: http://tarabrach.com/audioarchives2011.html . (Go to the 2011 archives and find 10/26/11 Divine Abodes: Joy.)

March 12, 2012: Impermanence, Revisited

Ginger is gone now. We had to put her down last week; her eyes and body told us it was time.

It would be easy to focus only on the sorrow, but I am grateful that my meditation and mindfulness practice helps me acknowledge the joys, too – memories of Ginger romping ahead of us on the wooded path, her curly tail waving as she chased a squirrel…Ginger grabbing a stick, inviting one of our sons to play tug of war…Ginger running toward us when it was time to get back in the car.

In the abstract we know that nothing ever stays the same, but sometimes we are faced with this truth on a deeper level. The Buddha taught that attachment to things and people and ways of life are futile. Attachment leads to grasping, which leads to suffering, or dukkha. The solution to suffering, I have oh-so-slowly come to accept, is to end the grasping, like the Buddha said, rather than try to escape from the universal law of impermanence. 

Through all these years of walking Ginger in the woods and postage-stamp prairies tucked in and around Iowa City, Ames, and eastern Iowa, nature has demonstrated the law of impermanence. Bloodroot pushes out of the ground in April like old, gnarled palms that turn youthful and flat as they rise, then old and leathery as spring progresses. Sweet Williams release their aromatic lilac scent for a few days in May, after which the smell turns musky and then fades. Purple coneflowers bloom in June like they’re forever, and then suddenly they’re passing the baton to their grey-headed coneflower cousins with the yellow petals. In the fall a deer carcass gets picked over by hungry, cawing ravens; a hawk flies over with a mouse in its talons. Canadian geese honk southward and then north again, leaving the old and sick behind.

At the end, she sniffed more than ran in the woods. Her eyes turned milky and she chased squirrels only in her dreams, her paws twitching.  

If you let go a little, you’ll have a little peace, the Buddhists say. If you let go a lot you’ll have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you’ll have complete peace.  Mahusukha, the Great Happiness…the great release – nature knows this and Ginger knew it, too. It may take me a lifetime to bend my own mind to it, but I can’t say that I haven’t had a good teacher.

Rest in peace, dear beast.

October 13, 2011: Gratitude

These flowers caught my eye the day before I sketched them. It was October, and my husband and I had biked on the luscious Duck Creek Trail in Davenport. I decided to come back the next day and sketch them before it rained, because they surely wouldn’t be that brilliant again until late summer of the next year. In my journal I wrote beside the sketch, “It’s hard to let go of these warm, sunny, colorful fall days. Seems like we’ve only recently caught a late-summer stride with biking, hiking, appreciating, savoring…can’t we start all over again, now? Does fall always have to gift us with the reminder that we only get one life apiece?” 

But of course the Buddhists remind us to be grateful for impermanence, for it is what lends poignancy to life. Without our sense of impermanence, another day would just be another day – instead of the gift that it really is.

August 21, 2011: The Blessing Beast

Ginger, AKA The Beast, AKA Hot Dog on the days that she suns outdoors on the steps, as she was doing on this day when I sketched her. As a matter of fact, Ginger is the subject appearing most often in my journals. She’s almost 16 now, weighs 55 pounds, and is still mostly muscle from the days when she used to bound five miles to my two, on our daily hikes in the woods. We still walk everyday, but now I run mostly in place, two miles to her half-mile, while she sniffs and moseys. I love this creature because she seems so in the moment. She teaches me daily how to just…be. Bless this beast who blesses us!  

July, 2012: Can Mindfulness Training Fix Boredom?

Occasionally in my mindfulness/meditation workshops a participant will allude to the stress of coping with work – or a life – that isn’t challenging enough. Can a meditation practice be a panacea for boredom?

Cultivating a mindful state can help with moments of boredom, but to alleviate chronic ennui, we may have to figure out how to challenge ourselves more. As Eric Maisel put it recently in a Psychology Today article (“Who Stole Your Brian?), “If you have a good brain and the world you grow up in demands that you shut it down, you are bound to suffer.”

Maisel says that it is “natural and predictable that our environment may pressure us not to think. This pressure will produce pain as we intuit that we are missing out on a native opportunity and will negatively affect our personality, producing everything from ‘math anxiety’ to ‘depression.’ If you were born to think and got pushed off that path, now is the time to make use of your available personality to craft a new, friendlier relationship with your brain.”

I agree. Mindfulness and meditation can only go so far in improving our lives. Pursuing our passions, nurturing a sense of curiosity, and taking on new learning curves is also part of the equation.

Sometimes when we feel like we’re crawling out of our skin, we need to do something different. Just ask a cicada!