Categories
Dharma

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. 

Categories
Buddhism Dharma

Buddhism in Everyday Life

This is part two of a talk I gave at the Vista Buddhist Temple on November 9, 2019. You can listen to part one here. In the second part, I explore what mindfulness means, how to practice mindfulness, how to maintain mindfulness, and the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

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Buddhism Dharma

Touching Ancestors: Guided Meditation

“For over 4 billion years the earth has been here, holding and feeding single-celled organisms, dinosaurs, plants and flowers, and humans. We 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.”

Thus begins a guided meditation offered at the Vista Buddhist Temple on Saturday, November 9, 2019. This is part one of a dharma talk I offered with the theme Buddhism in Everyday Life.

Categories
Buddhism Dharma

Sangha Can Be the Next Buddha

Earlier this year I was invited to contribute to the November issue of Lions Roar magazine as part of their Buddhism’s Next 40 Years: A Time of Reformation series. In this article, I offer three ways we can rethink community and fulfill Thich Nhat Hanh’s aspiration for the Buddhist community.

Buddha, dharma, and sangha are three precious jewels in Buddhism. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, “The most important of these is sangha.”

Illustration by Sydney Smith.

For many years, the Zen master has taught that “it is probable that the next buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and loving-kindness, a community practicing mindful living.”

Continue reading at Lions Roar.

Categories
Dharma

Screaming Mind and the Love Meditation

The words begin “May I Be…”, and they have been a practice for the past six months. When we reach those places in our meditation practice when nothing seems to work, we can turn toward those actions that are more simple. More basic. This is a place I’ve found myself this year. Sitting meditation went to the wayside. Chanting went to the wayside. Same with Touching the Earth. Asking for help was about all that could be mustered in these moments of difficulty. 

When speaking with my mentors and teachers, each one shared how important it can be to turn toward the body. Body awareness is tactile, real, and evident in virtually everything I do. When I walk, I can walk with awareness. This is a deep meditation. My body is often in motion and so these moments can be an opportunity  to know there is a body present. Legs are there to provide locomotion. Feet are there to touch the earth in each moment. 

And yet, even this most basic practice of being aware of the body and its locomotion can be a challenge in these deserts of practice. When my frustration or distraction arises, as it often does, then if I can bring mindfulness to the moment. This moment is an opportunity to be free. Seeing and touching the movement without judgment. And not to push away the mind with force, but to offer an acknowledgement. Drawing attention to my mind as it screams at me about all my suffering and then learning to calm it with bringing my attention to my body. 

It might only last a minute or five minutes, but that is enough in my relearning to tune the mind and the body. These moments of nuance are guiding me in the practice of mindfulness. A long journey unfolds on this path toward ease and happiness. 

The other practice suggested by my mentors is the Love Meditation. It has been a daily reading practice with my focus on myself throughout this year. The words appear on the page as I read and though I don’t believe they will help, I read them anyway. Slowly and with intention. 

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit. 
May I be safe and free from injury. 
May I be free from anger, fear, and anxiety.

The first stanza ends with anxiety, a place I know all too well, and it’s easy to get caught by the word as I read it into my mind. As I feel the anxiety present, I turn back to the the word happy earlier in the verse. There is anxiety and there is also happiness. It is possible. 

May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love. 
May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.

This verse has been really difficult. My criticism and unhappiness for myself has been strong. There is understanding, so the verse says, but I can’t see it. I’ve felt love for myself, but it has been missing. Can it be cultivated by into my consciousness? Sometimes it feels impossible. And yet I read it into my mind each day, hoping and trusting that it may arise again. 

May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day. 
May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.

Here we have advanced practice! For me, I have to embody and hold the first two verses as true and experienced before I can move into this lasting experience. Knowing how to nourish the seeds of joy can be identified. For example, stopping to smile at the ocean before arriving at work. This can be done each workday. But how can it be sustained at other moments in the day? That is the challenge and the practice. 

Pacific Ocean with Fog Bank. Leadbetter Beach, Santa Barbara, CA
Leadbetter Beach, Santa Barbara, CA

During this year while practicing with the Love Meditation, I’ve had to let myself trust that it will work. For many days, I didn’t have faith that reciting these verses would actually help me. But I read them anyway. Allowing the dharma rain to penetrate into me even if I’m always wearing a raincoat. In some form, the words can seep in through the sleeves or around the neck. And if I let them touch me every day, then at some point I’ll be saturated. 

It’s been a good practice. A foundational practice. One that I know is working. Moving me from despair and criticism to gentleness and love. 

The journey continues. 

Categories
Buddhism Dharma Justice

A Welcome for Sangha Gatherings

In recent years, I have been reflecting with other friends on the path on methods to make our practice communities more inclusive. Also, to recognize and honor those who have gone before us including those who were instrumental in building Buddhism in America. In particular, as a result of the war in Vietnam we have the Venerable Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh living in exile for fifty years. And with that exile, along with thousands of Vietnamese, we have the practice centers at Deer Park Monastery, Magnolia Grove Monastery, and Blue Cliff Monastery that serve and support mindfulness practice in the Plum Village tradition.

Making our practice communities more inclusive is no easy task. It will require everyone to transform themselves and be willing to do things differently. As the Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams wrote on Lions Roar, this is the “back of the bus” moment of our time.

For the last two or three practice events I’ve offered, both in-person and online, I have begun the session with a short statement. It is offered as a guided reflection followed by a guided meditation. The reflection is drawn from several sources. Please use, adapt, and share with your groups.


Sunrise in Santa Barbara

For over 4 billion years the earth has been here, holding and feeding single-celled organisms, dinosaurs, plants and flowers, and humans. We 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 are also grateful to hear that our Teacher has been able to return home to his root temple, where he was ordained at the age of sixteen, to spend the rest of his days in the care of the community.

We see and hold too the native 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. And today we also honor our diversity, whether that be gender, religion, ethnicity, national origin, age, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or political affiliation. We hold a special place today for the communities who are recovering from the wildfires in California and earthquakes in Alaska (insert something timely and appropriate).

All this is present here today as the Sangha is invited to come back to our breathing so that the collective energy of mindfulness will bring us together as an organism, going as a river with no more separation.

Categories
Dharma Education teaching

Being Present for Our Students

Bed of Flowers

Being present for our students is a true gift we can offer and these experiences with students are one of the reasons why I’ve loved teaching and being part of an academic environment my entire professional career. As teachers, we have the capacity to change lives in ways that we may not always be fully aware of in the moment. I’m certain we’ve all experienced that moment when a student returns to share some action or word we said that had a deep impact. Our engagement with students can be a big responsibility that can be fostered in many ways: a kind word, a thoughtful smile, a note of encouragement, and even a criticism that comes from a place of wanting to push a student to learn something new.

For those who have taught classes in person, we may have an easier time being in touch with our students and the energy of the classroom. I may notice when a student is having a difficult day or week or even the entire semester. I can linger after class, arrive early, or have a student crying in our office. In those moments, my hope is I am able to practice with empathy and with understanding.

Beginners’ Mind

This being present for students may come naturally for you, and for others it may take some effort. But I know we all have this capacity for empathy and understanding. In my life, I have found cultivating this for myself first has allowed me to extend this more easily to my students. It has been through 25-years of meditation practice, allowing for a deeper understanding of my mind, that I’ve been able to bring this directly into the classroom. And just like our students, a beginners’  mind in myself can keep things fresh and help me to discover new ways to work with students.

How does this all extend into my online classroom? Do I know my students in the same way I might as if we are spending three hours per week in person? Am I able to identify a student in need or crisis through the work posted online so that I might reach out and connect to the student? And, within a primarily written medium, how am I being present for my students? We can create the conditions in our online classes that allows us to know our students better and be tuned into their overall learning experience.

Creating the Conditions for Learning

It’s the humanizing work. It’s the touchy-feely stuff that can help the student feel connected to the course material, to me, and to the college as a whole. The classes I’ve taught online – library science, technology, social media and marketing – are not necessarily touchy-feely topics. But as the teacher, we set the tone. In the online environment we need to offer a little bit more of ourselves explicitly. With in-person  classes, students know I have a deep sense of humor, that I always wear black, that I like to pause in class and listen to student sharing, and that I like using the white board. These characteristics are part of my character. Online students don’t easily get this part of me, but these characteristics are critical for building a classroom relationship for our semester journey.

Creating a space where communication can be open and responsive to both student learning and student needs is key to building instructor-student relationships online. This means taking risks, and it certainly means taking more time. I write about myself, I share photos or videos so they know who I am as a person, and I incorporate personal life antidotes into the learning materials. More importantly, I create as many opportunities for students to interact with me so that I know who they are as humans. This can achieved through  discussion, writing assignments, or video posts. I encourage students to share content they find that is exciting for them. Anything we, as instructors, can do to bring regular, meaningful student interactions into our online class is valuable. And we can build on this foundation to create a learning environment that is grounded in communication and trust. Creating an online classroom that is similar to how I spend 3-hours a week engaging with my students in a classroom is what I try to cultivate. My goal as an online instructor is to foster these human connections to inspire learning. In the end, when I support, guide, and inspire my students, I am nourished by our deep connections as they experience life’s difficulties and joys.

Originally posted on @ONE: Online Network of Educators