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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
This year I wanted to cultivate more reflection and inspiration in my meditation practice. For the past several months, I’ve been reading a few poems by Wendell Berry each morning (from A Timbered Choir). And though I’ve been married to a poet for a quarter century, it’s not a source of material I often turn toward.
A few mornings ago, these words arrived as I sat with my morning coffee. Looking to capture it here.
Trees and forest. Oh
the many days and nights.
Of cold, of rain, of sunshine.
The birds and squirrels. Hands and
vehicles. Sawmill and finisher.
Restored with love.
To hold me each morning.
With coffee and reflection.
An antique rocking chair.
In the morning darkness.
Trying to have fun and not be to serious.