Practice through Darkness

This is a talk I offered on May 11, 2020 to the Be Here Now sangha in Montana. An audio version is available at the bottom of the post.

Ancestor Acknowledgement

Before we begin, I want to acknowledge and embrace the many generations of Vietnamese who carried Buddhism to us through our Teacher, Thay, and helped build the sangha in new lands. Their history and practice are present with us today.

We see and hold too the Indigenous and First Nation peoples who lived on the lands before us, who cared for it as we do, and lived their lives in community. Here in the Ojai Valley these are the Chumash People. Think now and name the people in your location.

Today we also honor our sangha diversity, whether that be gender, religion, ethnicity, national origin, age, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or political affiliation.

My name is Kenley Neufeld. My dharma name is True Recollection of Joy. I have been practicing with the Plum Village community just over 20-years.

My family heritage the past 500-years is rooted in the German-speaking Anabaptist tradition that began in modern-day Netherlands then migrated to Poland, Ukraine, and finally to Canada and the United States. This rich tradition has informed my values and beliefs. And also some historical trauma. 

A Possible Path

In the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing, also known as the Anapanasati Sutta, the Buddha shows us how to transform our fear, despair, anger, and craving. Breathing is a means of awakening and maintaining full attention in order to look carefully, long, and deeply, to see the nature of things, and arrive at liberation. It is an invitation for to us breathe and to enjoy our breath.

This simple practice can be very profound to the degree that it can transform our outlook on the world. 

The Sutra contains sixteen exercises with each group of four focusing on a different aspect of ourselves – form, feelings, mental formations, and perceptions. Each of these four groups also align with the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (also known as the Satipatthana Sutta).

We can apply these teachings in our daily lives. Whether living as a householder, retired from the work environment, or independently caring for yourself. This teaching on breathing can be applied in order to discover joy and happiness. There is no need to be a Buddhist to apply one of the deepest mindfulness teachings passed through the ages. 

Further, the exercises can be done in any order. They are all wonderful. That said, the earlier ones related more to stopping and the later ones on looking deeply. But these too are interconnected.

There are many reasons to practice these teachings. They can help us work with our habit energies. They can help us move from forgetfulness to being fully present. They can provide freedom from fear, anxiety, frustration, and even despair. They can help us Practice through Darkness. 

A Breaking Point

In June 2018, I suffered from a mental breakdown. I had been working 55-hours a week as Dean at a community college. The campus was experiencing a great deal of turmoil and difficulty with the overwhelming majority of the campus leadership new to their role. I was one of a handful of “long-termers” with only 4-years in my dean position. I had been through four supervisors in those short years.

Further, I was spending 10-15 hours a week taking care of my dharma community. Not to mention commuting 2-hours a day and trying to be a father and partner. I strove for perfection and arose each morning at 3:45am to allow space for meditation and exercise. But ultimately it became too much for me and I broke.

Something had to give. I requested a sabbatical from sangha activity and commenced to share weekly with a spiritual friend in the practice. 

When we are living in moments of fear or anxiety, it is not always so easy to cultivate our mindfulness practice. And when we are in despair, the challenge becomes even greater. But it’s not impossible.

This is where these sutras come in handy. They are a guide. A foundation. Life is both painful and miraculous. And conscious breathing is our foundation and can bring joy – helping to set aside our difficulties. Or least not to be so burdened by them. 

Practicing Through Darkness

Let’s look more closely at the sutras. From the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing:

  1. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath.
  2. Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath.
  3. Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.
  4. Breathing in, I am calm my whole body. Breathing out, I am calm my whole body.

These are the first four exercises. They are matched with First Establishment of Mindfulness. Which states, “A practitioner remains established in the observation of the body in the body, diligent, with clear understanding, mindful, having abandoned every craving in this life.

It’s a lot of words. And seems to have a form. But don’t get too caught by the structure and format. In times of darkness, we may only be able to do this for a moment. But each time we do, we can touch peace. Just for that moment.

During that summer of 2018 and into the fall, I was only able to do this part of the time. A few moments here. A few moments there. Sometimes all I could say is, “there is a body here.” And take a look at my body. My hands, my fingers, my legs, my feet. I could touch my face and know there is a face. And see that I have a body. 

We can call this following the breath in daily life and awareness of the body. All meditation practice begins with the body. In doing so, we can touch our physical manifestation. We can touch our trauma. We can touch our ancestors. We can touch our breath.

The first thing we do when sitting on the meditation cushion is to adjust our body. Slowly and gently positioning our legs, our feet, our hands, our back. We can do this as we follow our breathing and settle the body.

The rest of 2018 brought a lot of tears. I would cry with my spiritual friend. I would cry in my car as I drove home from work. I would cry as I would lie down to sleep. My feelings were overwhelming me. Loss. Despair. Hopelessness. Fear. Anxiety.

Not so different from what many may be feeling today during this COVID crisis. Not so different from what many people in this country experience in their daily lives. The spiritual friendship I had was important. Critical even. A dharma friend who would listen with compassion and kindness. And to help me to practice the First Foundation of Mindfulness. 

The Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing continues,

5. Breathing in, I feel joyful. Breathing out, I feel joyful.

6. Breathing in, I feel happy. Breathing out, I feel happy. 

7. Breathing in, I am aware of my mental formations. Breathing out, I am aware of my mental formations. 

8. Breathing in, I calm my mental formations. Breathing out, I calm my mental formations.

These four exercises align with the Second Establishment of Mindfulness. Which says, “She remains established in the observation of the feelings in the feelings, diligent, with clear understanding, mindful, having abandoned every craving and every distaste for this life.

In full disclosure, I was not able to practice the fourth and fifth exercise very well. I could say them intellectually, but I wasn’t able to allow them to penetrate deeply. But just the effort of saying them probably touched something inside.

And I know that joy and happiness are the medicine to give us strength to cure our deepest, most fundamental causes of our sickness.

To be able to ask, what are my conditions for happiness? To name them by writing them down or saying them aloud. These would often come forth in my conversations with my friend. And to be able to see the connection between suffering and happiness. 

Mental Formations

What are mental formations? In the Buddhist tradition, there are 51 mental formations. They range from feelings and perceptions to mindfulness, insight and concentration. Some other wholesome mental formations are diligence, non-harming, faith, joy, and humility. On the unwholesome side we may see hatred, ignorance, arrogance, doubt, anger, resentment, selfishness, and jealousy. And the ones I was struggling with: fear, anxiety, and despair. 

Using the seventh and eighth exercises, we can become aware of our mental formations and learn to calm those mental formations. We can begin with naming, just like we did with the body. There is fear here. Or, mindfulness is present.

We can practice this exercise with mere recognition. No judgment on whether it’s a wholesome, unwholesome, or indeterminate. The mental formation is simply the mental formation. 

I invite you to explore these two sutras and begin to apply them in your daily life. They are foundational teachings regardless of where you are in your practice. They can be used in times of joy and happiness. And in times of sorrow and suffering. Our practice is to be aware of our feeling that is present right now. Is the feeling pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, or mixed? We can ask where our feelings arise from? 

It is also important to practice non-duality – an unpleasant feeling is not the enemy – we draw awareness to it. We approach our awareness with compassion and nonviolence; with our hearts filled with love.

The Story Continues

Now to finish my story. Surprisingly, it got worse before it got better. I had been experiencing major depression and anxiety coupled with an obsessive-compulsive personality. This led in turn to a second major mental breakdown in January 2019 that forced me to seek professional help and long-term care. I didn’t work for most of 2019 and toward the end of the year I resigned my position as Dean.

When a person spends an entire year caring for only oneself, the landscape becomes populated with virtually all the 51 mental formations. Through this time, the main practice has been following my breath in daily life and awareness of body. Two practices directly from the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. Just learning to be okay with what is. Much easier said than done.

With this new year (2020), I am doing much better. I have returned to work doing something less responsible. I have begun to pick-up pieces of my sangha activities. And doing so with mindfulness and attention. Along with setting careful boundaries. 

And then COVID hit. But that is a story for the future.