Welcoming the Embrace of Awareness

All of the ingredients of both awakening and bondage exist in the present moment and nowhere else. In this moment, no matter how disconnected we feel from the whole, this “separate I” can be met, welcomed and offered deep compassion. The fear can be held too. Awareness, when we let it, can embrace us just as we are with no conflict, no effort, nothing left out. We can relax for a while and rest in presence.

Why do most of us find it so difficult to access this sweet relief that is readily available? A primary reason is our ingrained identification with an idea of a fixed self, often manifesting as the one who feels inadequate. If we’re honest, this is a life long struggle most of us are intimately familiar with. But if we simply switch to self-affirmation and positivity, we’re still identifying with and living out of this small and limited idea of self. Inevitably once the positivity wears off we may revert to feelings of inadequacy because at the core, we are still identifying with an idea of fixed self, which is never enough.

As a child I was sexually abused by my father, as a teenager gang raped. To cope I entered my adult life with a story that I was strong and that being a woman in no way marginalized me. This positive narrative did help me climb the ladder of business success. Simultaneously, at a deeper level I was in denial about the profound sense of inadequacy I felt – the surface positivity was my survival mechanism. I remember visiting various tech companies in Silicon Valley to meet with the top executives. I was in a leadership position in the tech world, a woman executive surrounded primarily by men. I held a mental narrative that being a woman didn’t limit me. But underneath I felt like an impostor who didn’t belong there. I couldn’t acknowledge or access how strongly this underlying feeling affected me. I desperately wanted to leave the tech life behind and a buyout opportunity gave me the chance at a young age.

Several years passed before I felt strong enough to acknowledge and touch my deep vulnerability, work with the trauma directly and finally, restore my energy and confidence. As I felt stronger at my core, beyond self-identity, I could welcome the vulnerability and fear. During daily meditation, the great embrace of awareness allowed me to let down my guard and release the armoring of false identity I had lived with for so long. Off the cushion I no longer had to pretend to be strong to cover over feelings inadequacy. I could finally relax and live a more joyful and equanimous life.

Many of us have powerful experiences of no self during meditation. But getting off the cushion, its easy to revert, again and again, to an identity that feels incomplete. We may be aware of a subtle discomfort just under the surface and spend most of our time seeking strategies to eliminate it. Even efforts that seem in accordance with the dharma can easily turn into a trap of self improvement. We’re actually seeking to fill what is already full.

Instead, can we let go for a while, put down our (often unconscious) attempts to build a better self and touch with compassion what’s really here? No matter how broken and small we may feel, here we gain access to true strength. Resting in the embrace of awareness, we can relate to our myriad experiences and our perceived imperfections in a kinder, more inclusive way.

Buddhist Psychology Workshop: An Exploration of Dependent Origination and Emptiness

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Walking Where There is No Ground

We’re now moving into a new phase of the pandemic with many states partially reopening or even phasing out the quarantine. For some of us, it seems far too soon for safety. Uncertainty and a sense of groundlessness remain a significant part of this landscape. Personally I’m doing my best to walk where there is no ground and ride the unknowns without a map. Some days its easier than others. It helps to remember that the maps we hold in our minds are based on past experience or an approximation of what is present.

When our feet touch ground and the terrain differs from the map, we are in unknown territory that may feel groundless. Yet getting comfortable with this empty ground is the very heart of dharma practice, a doorway to liberation from a mind that clings to what it knows, or what it thinks it knows. Yes, it feels scary at times and compassion is essential when we explore this unknown terrain. But without allowing for these variations in the landscape, our experience hardens into an outdated map that doesn’t reflect the territory.

We can struggle to make the terrain conform to our old map, or let go and become intimate with the ground (or no-ground) we actually inhabit. We can relax with what is truly here and know in our hearts that we’ve never really been anywhere else. This great heart/mind of awareness holds us in a more reliable and spacious ground that we can learn to trust.

Teaching My First Zoom Residential Retreat: Better and Deeper than Expected

In April I taught my first online retreat and, to my surprise, it turned out much better than I expected.

The non profit I founded, One Dharma Nashville, holds an annual spring residential just outside of Nashville at Bethany Hills, a beautiful sport that is surrounded by nature. I knew by early March that the odds of this retreat happening were slim because of the virus. I began contemplating switching to an online offering to replace it, but felt hesitant, doubting the efficacy of meeting together on zoom while practicing at home.

Once we officially cancelled the in person retreat, I saw two choices: practice together online or skip the spring retreat entirely. Reluctantly, I chose the former. I have to admit initially I wasn’t looking forward to teaching a retreat online and only went ahead to accommodate those in our sangha who had voiced support for this format. Slowly as we got closer to the start date, I warmed up to the idea and even looked forward to leading home practice with sangha while on quarantine.

But I wondered, will people actually practice outside of our zoom meeting times? Can folks navigate home life, spouses, pets, maybe even children, wile meditating multiple times a day? Some decided they couldn’t, especially those with multiple kids at home or difficult work challenges. But many in our sangha and beyond decided it was worth a try. Everyone who attended was an online retreat beginner even though most were experienced retreat practitioners.

Observing full silence while also sharing home space with others is almost impossible, so most found a practical “middle way,” observing silence part of the time but still connecting and communicating with those at home. People living alone set up their time as a traditional silent meditation retreat.

I was surprised at how connected we felt meditating together multiple times a day. Having a schedule and sticking to it, even though it wasn’t as intensive as an in person retreat, allowed us to feel solidarity in the practice and in the dharma in a way that sitting alone doesn’t. Even when practicing during the offline times during the weekend, many people reported feeling a sense of connection to the sangha.

Retreating at home in this way isn’t as conducive to experiencing the deep samadhi (meditative absorption) that many meditators encounter on residential retreat. Yet other benefits emerged that are equally valuable. Many of our retreat participants reported how the barriers of retreat and home life dissolved. They were able to clearly observe and bring awareness to conditioned patterns that show up in daily life. Some of our retreat practitioners have reported that this mindful intervention has already had lasting positive effects. Often on residential retreats, reentry into everyday life feels challenging. But in this format, the line between the two was so subtle that reentry felt more natural.

I now believe home retreat is a valuable development in our practice that allows the barriers between retreat practice and home life to dissolve. As we bring our retreat practice more deeply into our everyday lives, the penetrating wisdom of the dharma sheds a light on parts of ourselves, and the way we function day to day, that may be obscured otherwise. It opens additional capacity to choose, with compassion and wisdom, a more responsive and aware relationship with ourselves and others.

I’m still a firm believer in retreating together in nature and look forward to the time when we can do this again safely. But for now, and even once quarantine ends, I believe online home retreat practice is here to stay. Both formats have value in differing ways. And I’m personally on board for more home Zoom retreats, both as a practitioner and a teacher. In fact, I have one coming up this weekend. See you on the other side!

Taking Refuge and Guided Metta in the Time of Caronavirus

We often hear of taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. How do we relate to refuge through the lens of an unstable, destabilizing world and political environment and a virus that has upended our lives? In this talk I explore these questions and bring refuge back to this very moment – to the freedom we can find here and now, even in these very challenging times.

Meeting Fear with Compassion Guided Meditation

This guided meditation helps you observe and nurture anxiety. As the Buddha said, “Whatever has the nature to arise will pass away.” Through this practice we begin to know this experientially and realize that fear and anxiety aren’t so solid. Our practice is precisely opening to this.

New Guided Meditation: The Compassionate Heart

A compassionate, open heart begins to melt away the distinction of inside and outside, self and others. There is only this heart, this compassion, this moment. Perfect in sadness or in joy.

Waking Up to This Stillness, This Peace

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Yesterday morning my husband and I went out early to hike at Radnor Lake, a nearby, very popular nature preserve. We thought if we arrived before 6:30 we would have the place mostly to ourselves. But when we arrived the parking lot was already half full. We shifted to a backup plan, a nearby park that is much less well known than Radnor Lake. We pulled in to an empty parking lot and enjoyed brisk walk on the park loop, seeing only one other person the entire time we were there. I deeply appreciated being immersed in nature as the sun rose over the trees and cast long, golden shadows across the fields. For a while, life felt normal and unhindered by a global pandemic encroaching ever more deeply on our city. Immersed in a moment of beauty on a brisk morning, my heart was full of gratitude, joy and presence.

On our drive home during what is normally the morning rush hour, we saw few cars on the main arteries. I felt a pervading sense of stillness as the engines of our economy have come to a near halt and the pressures to produce have, to some extent, been lifted. Inside I felt the waves of activity and doership fully paused and my heart at peace. It struck me how our perceptions of activity and movement, the worldly winds, are like a phantom and a dream, largely created by the mind and fulfilled by restlessness, desire and greed. This deep pause refreshed of my heart and mind at a level I normally access during deep meditation or while on retreat and removed from everyday life.

To be clear, many people do not have this privilege. Many must report to work outside their homes no matter what and my heart breaks for those who must be in harm’s way. On a less dire level, this slowdown is affecting my livelihood and, like most, my retirement account has been crushed. Yet in these moments of stillness and presence all is well no matter what else may be true at a relative level. This is the peace that is always here but too often obscured when our minds look outward to seek fulfillment through busyness, consumption, or greed.

Our wise hearts have the capacity to pause and find peace even during a time of great upheaval. The environment is also resting, pollution is down along with global travel and other forms of consumption. What is stark to me are the extremes of this continuum: an economy that can’t or won’t wake up to the realty of climate change on one end and a global pandemic on the other that shuts everything down and thus, the earth comes to rest for a while. We humans have not yet found a middle way and it is unclear if we will. So for now we can begin with our own hearts and minds, coming to rest when we can and allowing ourselves to retreat.

During a recent talk, Jack Kornfield spoke of leading a zoom conference for a large group people in China who were on lockdown. He explained to them that hundreds of people at Spirit Rock Meditation Center paid a lot of money to be on retreat, while they were on retreat in their homes for free. He encouraged them to take the opportunity while they could.

Many of us have this same opportunity right now, to slow down for a while, to retreat right where we are and find this stillness, for ourselves and for those around us. As Jack recently said, “This is the time to steady yourself – and it affects everyone else.”

This opportunity won’t come again in just this way, so please join me if you can and allow this time to be one of returning, not just to your physical home, but this home of your body, your breath and the great awareness that holds you in times of stillness and movement, stress and release, sorrow and joy. As Martin Luther King said long ago, “Be the peace you want to see in the world.” Now is the time.

May we all be safe and well, may we be held in compassion and filled with lovingkindess. May we find peace.

 

 

As Fearful as You Need to Be: Steadiness in the Midst of Fear

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There’s a popular saying about how to eliminate fear, I’m sure you’ve heard it: “Choose love, not fear.” This is reassuring; it makes people feel that they always have a choice not to be afraid if they can love instead. It is the principle of replacing what’s considered a negative, fear, with a perceived positive, love. But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes we just feel afraid and there’s nothing we can do to eliminate the fear. We can try, perhaps we can do it for a while, but often the fear just pops back up in another way, just like grief or anger. Maneuvering to get rid of it can have unwanted repercussions and often intensifies the anxiety.

So what do you do when your maneuvering fails? Be as fearful as you need to be. Pause and open to it, feel it in your body, don’t try to get rid of it. Stop viewing it as a problem and approach it as a friend who needs your attention. But also be aware of the thoughts and projections that are feeding the fear. You don’t have to nourish those thoughts. What would happen if you just let your fear live inside your body for a while, just as it is? What if you quit viewing fear as the enemy, something to get rid of? Would it overrun you and eat you up? Not if you cultivate a steady mind and an open heart in the presence of the fear. You’ll slowly see that this present moment awareness is bigger than fear. Take a few deep breaths and step in, readily or slowly, at whatever pace works for you. Through this practice you can reach a still and open dwelling place where wisdom lives. You can steadiness in the midst of fear, and maybe even love.

“Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest being, something that needs our love.” -Rilke