MF 34 – The Benefits (and Challenges!) of Self-Discipline in Cultivating a Meditation Practice
(This is a summary transcript, listen to the episode for the full conversation)
Kristina and I reflect on what it takes to cultivate self-discipline in our meditation practice. What are some of the challenges we have come across, and what are some of the benefits of doing a regular consistent practice. We start off with some quotes.
Self-Discipline is needed to get up out of bed early enough to enjoy the sunset, to enjoy the world waking up!
“Like a beautiful flower full of color but without fragrance, even so, fruitless are the fair words of one who does not practice them.” Dhammapada
“With sustained effort and sincerity discipline and self-control the wise become like islands which no flood can overwhelm” Dhammapada
This type of effort of course requires commitment, consistency, patience, courage, determination, and enthusiasm.
In, When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron understands sila/discipline to be a “process that supports us in going against the grain of our painful habitual patterns.”
She notes that:
“Discipline provides the support to slow down enough and be present enough so that we can live our lives without making a big mess. It provides the encouragement to step further into groundlessness.
….What we discipline is not our “badness” or our “wrongness.”
What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality. In other words, discipline allows us to be right here and connect with the richness of the moment. What makes this discipline free from severity is prajna (wisdom).”
Self Discipline, or self-control has somewhat negative connotation in the west I think. But I wanted to talk about self-chosen discipline instead of externally imposed discipline.
Discipline is often associated with punishment. However, the latin root of the word means learning disciplina teaching, learning, from discipulus pupil.
Sure, there is a dark side of discipline that is too serious, too restrictive and narrowing. I think too much of that can lead to a separation, where it could move away from intimacy, and turn into too much coldness and detachment from the world, and therefor another type of separation.
That is not what we want to talk about today. Perhaps, calling it cultivation, instead of discipline. For example, the cultivation of moment-to-moment mindfulness sounds nicer than calling it, the discipline of mindfulness. But really what it means to me is simply to practice something regularly and consistently in a structure that I chose on my own volition (or my community), and make it a priority, make time for it.
For example, without discipline, we wouldn’t brush our teeth. But because we don’t like getting drilled, we decide to give some of our time to the discipline of brushing our teeth. (Kristina shares her thoughts)
For me, when I was a teenager, I wanted the benefits of meditation, such as peace, and equanimity, but I did not have the discipline, or some might say, serious enough intent and humility to practice regularly.
I didn’t realize how serious I would need to take the practice in order to really start transforming my afflictions etc. Now I’m not saying meditation is a serious practice, simply saying that we do need to take our practice seriously, but then enjoy and take joy in the practice. You can have both serious and joy at the same time, recognizing these opposites can co-exist at the same time is part of maturity.
Back then, I’d sit whenever I felt like it, do it with eyes closed, try multiple meditations traditions and practices at once, didn’t seek out a mentor, read a lot, etc. (Kristina shares her thoughts)
As I got into meditation formally, and got feedback from a teacher and a community of practitioners. This formal at-home, as well as community practice helped me see the various gaps in mindfulness, the times where I lacked of composure. Some might call those gaps leaks. And the practice is about doing our best to create a gap-less practice.
As I practiced more, I uncovered and became aware of more and deeper levels and areas where I was stuck, or clinging, or afflicted, or forgetful, etc. So that further provided the fuel and motivation to continue to practice. I’d become aware of the tendency to hold onto illusions of separateness, fear of change, desire to grasp onto illusions, “nostalgia for samsara”, clinging to solidity of image, etc. etc.
Can I see and treat each and every “thing” as a manifestation of the “mystery” and realize non-separation? Can I see or exclaim, “not-two!” whenever I see a flower, or perhaps a rapist, or terrorist? If not, I’d have to look even deeper, and see behind the mask, behind the veil, behind outward appearances.
Anger issues when things don’t go the way I expect or prefer. Sloppiness, forgetfulness, like forgetting keys, or forgetting to close the gate, can all lead to a lot of suffering. Not cleaning up after myself, not maintaining relationships or the possessions, etc,.
Each of those instances, are reminders to get back to practicing (or polishing that jewel that we all have). It also takes discipline to remain fully engaged in each moment, even when tired, sick, physically injured, or fatigued. It is so easy to start sliding into complacency, or some type of lazyness.
Jim Rohn says discipline is the bridge between Goal and Accomplishment. Dreams get you started, discipline keeps you going.
A mentor or teacher, community helps push us deeper into understanding. I talk some more on what I think of as non-rigid discipline. Kristina laughs and we talk some more.
What’s your sense of it, what do you make of self-discipline?
Ven. Dr. Pannavati, a former Christian pastor, is co-founder and co-Abbot of Embracing-Simplicity Hermitage in Hendersonville, NC. A black, female Buddhist monk ordained in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions with Vajrayana empowerments and transmission from Roshi Bernie Glassman of Zen Peacemakers, she is both contemplative and empowered for compassionate service.
An international teacher, she advocates on behalf of disempowered women and youth globally, and insists on equality and respect in Buddhist life for both female monastics and lay sangha. She was a 2008 recipient of the Outstanding Buddhist Women’s Award.
In 2009, she received a special commendation from the Princess of Thailand for Humanitarian Acts and she ordained Thai Bhikkhunis, on Thai soil with Thai monks as witnesses.
In May 2010 she convened a platform of Bhikkhunis to ordain the first 10 Cambodian Samaneris in a Cambodian temple, witnessed by Cambodian abbots including Maha Thera Ven. Dhammathero Sao Khon, President of the Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks of the USA.
Ven. Pannavati continues to visit Thailand each year, ordaining, training, offering support for the nuns and assisting in their projects. In 2013 she arranged for 500 books to be sent to both elementary and secondary schools in Rayong. She is also raising funds to improve security at the compounds, as this is an utmost concern in some areas of Thailand.
Pannavati is a founding circle director of Sisters of Compassionate Wisdom, a 21st century trans-lineage Buddhist Order and Sisterhood formed by Ani Drubgyuma in 2006.
In 2011, Venerable adopted 10 “untouchable” villages in India, vowing to help them establish an egalitarian community based on Buddhist principles of conduct and livelihood, providing wells, books, teachers and micro-loans for women. Approximately 30,000 people live in these villages. She has sent funds to complete their first educational center.
Ven. Pannavati founded My Place, Inc. in Hendersonville, NC, which has housed more than 75 homeless youth between the ages of 17 and 23 over the past 4 years. That effort has evolved into a separate 501(c)(3) which has its own academic platform, jobs training program, residential program and social enterprise, My Gluten Free Bread Company.
She remains committed to advocacy for the homeless, sick and disenfranchised, those who are marginalized, abused, neglected and unloved. She loves the Dhamma, lives the Dhamma and teaches the Dhamma internationally.
Note: Following is a transcript (not word for word) of the podcast interview.
Interview with Ven. Pannavati
What brought you to where you are today?
She’s asked that question a lot since she used to be a Christian pastor. There didn’t used to be much meditation in Christian practice, but now there is some contemplative time in the Christian diaspora. She didn’t have a problem with God or Jesus, but she did have a problem with you.
She found a disconnect between the heart and her mind.
There were modes of being that she wanted to abandon.
The short version is that she began to pray and ask for guidance on what she needed to do. And the answer she got, was that she needed to look outside of Christianity. That there was another way to find or come into a place that she was seeking.
It took her some 15 years, before she found the Dharma. She loved the reading.
She needed to rely on herself to come into the fullness of who she is. If she did this work, then she could transform and do what she wanted to do. Learning meditation was easy for Pannavati. But she used to sit in silence waiting for an answer from the Lord, but now she could become aware in silence of pure presence.
With presence she found a certain wisdom comes with that. She learned that she could enter into a space where everything becomes clear. There is a settledness and clarity of heart. She could just simply see. And in that seeing she’s informed, what’s happening, and what her role is in it, and what’s required.
So its’ in the doing of meditation that it becomes clear and it becomes apparent. There’s a settling down that occurs, there’s a stilling of thought. And in that stillness there is a certain vastness of consciousness. An expansion of insight, understanding, and awareness.
And if you immerse yourself in it, you come out with a different view.
It’s like the scientists who are trying to find a solution to a problem, and after laying down, and wake up, and they get it. Meditation is like that for wisdom.
Tuition is information coming from the outside, but there is also intuition, that which rises from the inside. But we have to go there to tap and access that faculty to be better and more present.
What do you think of the difference between waiting and being present?
I think of waiting more of waiting for an answer or to empower. But the waiting I speak of with meditation is different, it’s like a waiter standing not too close, not too far. He’s very present. He’s just waiting for the glass to move. There is something very pregnant in that presence. Right there, seeing deeply. Meditation is not relaxing, it’s an active type of engagement, investigating the structure of appearances.
I like the word attending to the present and paying attention to what is going on in our minds, hearts.
Yes, she likes that word too. Being a mother, she knows what it is like to attend. The connection with a baby goes beyond the gross level. Even if you’re in another room, you can sense that on an energetic level. Where do you really end? Do I end here at the end of my skin? Once you become attuned to another person, you can know how another person is thinking and feeling. Because don’t just end with our skin.
Yes, we’re so trained to think we end with the boundary of our skin bag..
And if we stop right there, then of course there is the automatic setup for me, mine, and everybody else. But if we can tap experientially into the interconnectedness that we have, it will change the focus of our thoughts, the way we think about things, and think about others. We’ll start to be able to consider others as yourself.
Just because we have such a rigid dividing line between others and myself, that we have so many problems. I don’t want to be separate from others. When I put myself in their place, then I come away with a different idea of what’s required in the way I interact and engage.
How has this progression been from prayer to meditation, and then from Mahayana to Theravada?
Pannavati actually went from Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada Buddhism. She loves the devotion aspect of Mahayana Buddhism, it allowed her to open her heart. Being vulnerable, in it we find our true strength, as human beings. But then she got a copy of the Therevada’s Majjhima Nikaya the middle length discourses.
When she read it is was so clear. She didn’t have a heart problem, but her mind/understanding was not fruitful. Her mind couldn’t always live in the field of the heart. She needed something to train/tune the mind. And she found it there in the Buddhist teachings, this wonderful mind training. Learning to look inside. Learning to be an island onto herself.
While she can’t control what happens in the external world, but she can control her response to it.
And therein lies the freedom. Therein lies the liberation from the mental suffering, how I see and respond to the present moment.
And of course talk is cheap (laughs). We can talk all day long, but in the moment when I really need it to rescue me, is it there? And that is where practice of course comes in.
So we practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.
We don’t know that we have it, until the moment arises where we have to live it. Then we can know that there might be more work to do in that area. No harm no fowl. No guilt associated with that, just clear seeing. Then that eliminates that whole area around falling short, missing the mark, guilt, shame, sin, etc. It has no place, it is about seeing clearly, understanding the causes and conditions. Whether I was skillful or unskillful. Volitional or not. Whether able to apply restraint, living with integrity and responding. So it’s interesting and wonderful, and so full you don’t have any time to focus on anybody else.
How has your practice evolved over time. You’re able to let go of some of those old ingrained patterns. It’s very liberating to let that go. Do you still find some of those old habit patterns peaking through?
Oh yes, everyday I find some old habit pattern that comes up. This is the work, you just keep looking. In the beginning I didn’t expect to see that many, but I used to think whatever is wrong it’s out there. (laughs). I have now accepted that maybe there is some wrong view in here. And if I adjust how I see something, than I can also adjust my response to it.
Here’s the thing, if we become OK with ourselves. But this practice also helps to not blame and shame others. Your whole life shifts into an ease dimension, where were you can go for days and weeks without a sense of crossness, getting upset, not feeling depressed, or in sorrow, anger etc. Just seeing what today brings, and handling it to the best of your ability. And then you can just reflect, I can improve on that. And endeavor to improve it.
The capacity for improvement increases in direct proportion to the eradication of guilt and shame.
There’s a certain acceptance that takes place, which I think frees up resources. instead of the barrage of self-criticism.
Yes, it’s harder because we’re such an individualistic oriented society. Achievement, being the greatest, the best, having the most. Compelling us to this neurosis. Whereas in other countries there is a more communal way of living. We’re just coming to terms with that in this young society, we’re still adolescents!
We’re having to learn this kind of coming together, that’s all this diversity conversation. I like to talk about unification of mind. A lot can be accomplished the more we see our commonalities. And engage one another. Being able to hold someone else’s view the same I hold mine. I respect my view, can I respect yours?
And if I think it is un-beneficial view, then have I developed any skillfulness to lay out an alternative way of thinking and looking at something. But if I come at you fighting.
Yeah it just escalates. I like inner disarmament.
You’ve talked about meditation, and how it affected your life, at some point you brought it out into the world as well. Maybe we can talk about how you bring your practice into your daily life. You started ordaining women in other countries that don’t allow ordination of women, how did that work out?
When did you leave Christianity and become this. For me I just kept going on the path. If I’d been a catholic I would have been a missionary, fundraising to pay off the church. I wanted to engage more with people, and found a heart for people, being a Pentecostal and charismatic. So when I became a Buddhist 15 years later. There was great understanding, but I was looking for something that became dynamic and alive, heart in it. So I started doing what I did as a Christian.
In the beginning she’d get messages that monastics don’t do this, monastics don’t do that. People are my forest. Just made herself available. You send out a beacon, and it makes that sound, and it’s the drawing from that sound. So I just made the “I’m available sound”. She got a call from Thailand from a nun. She had someone connect with her who needed someone strong, who wasn’t timid or faint of heart, of making a change to the tradition.
Ok, so she came and helped. Pannavati serves a purpose, employing skillful means to do something useful and beneficial. Being African-american, Pannavati has a view about some things. She learned that, “If you see an opportunity for your freedom, don’t bother to ask your master, just seize it”.
She didn’t really subscribe to the notion of asking so much for the monks to accept to set in a lineage again. If the council says no, she’d use another door. They were able to use our wonderful sisters in the Mahayana tradition. Both of their lineages are Dharmagupta. She’s there to represent the Therevada. We were able to ordain them. Now we have full platforms with the the Therevadins. It has now been established, as of 2014, we have 35 nuns, or female monks. She doesn’t like the way nuns/women get diminished so she prefers to be called monk.
Males are called Bhante, which means revered teacher. Women are called Anne, which means Ante, or sister. So right there that sets an idea in motion amongst all of the people of the society in terms of worthiness. So I refer to myself as a female monk. Not from prideful thinking, just being clear and validating. Otherwise they take on that role, but they still act like ante and sister.
It seems like somehow that crept in a long time ago, based on a over-emphasis on appearances?
Yes, it is. And that’s why the Buddha cautions us to set a watch, the first part of our practice to draw our gaze in. To be careful to avoid we say sexual misconduct (3rd precept), but it really means sensual misconduct. Which means, don’t take everything you see, hear as gospel truth.
Example, of someone taking something out of context, because they only heard the tail-end of a conversation. She reminded them to not take too much stock in what you hear. You have to be careful of the assumptions that we draw, from the limited information that we got.
If we get in the habit of not doing that, we’ll have more happy peaceful minds, won’t be busybodies. We can then even overlook a slight!
These are the ways we suffer, like when you made to be feel invisible. Now it’s not that important to me, I can leave it at that, let it go. It’s not just meditation, but mindfulness as well.
We talk about mindfulness. We’re already mindful, it’s always attached to something. If we forget that, we run off on tangents, we won’t have the whole picture. A sociopath is extremely mindful. But where is his attention? And what other factors form that intention. And his developmental cultivation of compassion and care.
So there’s this 8 fold path of which mindfulness is just one aspect of that. But there’s these other 7 that we have to tend to, starting with “right view”. If I’m still suffering, there is some wisdom I can tap into to become better. So you seek out one who is wise. Hear what they have to say. And don’t just accept it, put it in the cauldron of your own experience. Investigate and see.
Yes, always verify with your own experience and practice.
In terms of mindfulness, what do you think about the new mindfulness craze and it’s de-coupling from the rest of the wisdom tradition?
Yes, absolutely. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful that mindfulness has become popular. But, if you take something out of it’s container, some of the efficacy is lost. And some of the benefit is lost… Yet, there has been some exposure. So i’m happy that mindfulness perhaps has moved mainstream, but we still have work to do.
Happy to see that there are other teachers, are trying to point to the complementary practices, and the deeper teachings of the sages. So that we can be all-around better, not just better with our themes. One of the reasons why we’re opening up the Balsam mountain refuge. To make sure that a more complete teaching is introduced into mainstream society, without using a Buddhist label. Or being able to tap into this universal wisdom that come out of another spiritual tradition. Being to be with one another, and discuss things, instead of coming and going with all silence, and you come and go just with your thoughts, or empty mind back into the same environment.
Good friends in the Dharma is the whole of spiritual life. The only time that we have a time to connect is when we come together at retreats. Ex. rural areas, or just coming and going to dharma centers without real connections taking place. So we think this Dharma center will bring us more back to a middle road place.
Here we all come together in silence, and not be in communion with each other. Buddha was the exact opposite, he talked about the 10 conversations we can have together.
The other thing I wanted to ask was how you’re helping the “untouchables”, the Dalit. The caste system, where people take a teaching and twist it around, and corrupt from the understanding of equality. It looks like you’ve been helping level that playing field.
I didn’t realize that this was still going on after the anti-atrocity law (the Anti-Atrocity Act) was passed to put that to rest. But people are still in that long held custom. So the Dalits have renamed themselves to “the broken people”. And we do go there, and even though they say untouchability doesn’t exist, it still does. Like when a Brahma gets the shadow from a Dalit that he is considered polluted. Buddha tried to change that erroneous understanding back when he lived. It’s not by your virtue of birth that your status as a human is known, but by what you do in your life. So even in that day, he was working in his own way against the understanding one person being more worthy than the other just based on birth. And of course we have similar views including our own country.
Laws are for people, people are not for laws. The only way you can change that is how you relate to one another through the heart. So I get more from them than they get from me. They’re so kind and gentle, it’s a pleasure to work with them, on what they are working on.
So I take a team once or twice a year, and we do what we call “bearing witness” retreats, just showing up. Not telling what they need or teaching Dharma, but coming in solidarity with them, asking them to tell us what they need. Before we can teach anything they need water! So we’d do a well project, and then a sewer project, health program. So we have doctors that come and train on how to deal with sanitation, toilets, health and books. So one thing leads to another, but just from people touching people.
So it’s teaching dharma outside of words, in the way you’re being and in your actions…
Yes, it’s just living it (living the teaching, as opposed to just talking about it). Yes, I was in a school, and this person was suspicious of us being there (based on a disappointing experience with a group coming in to “help” years earlier). But when we came in there were 68 children, leaky roofs, and no toilets. So we started repairing, doing different things.
She wanted our help, and yet there was still that wall (based on her expectation from the past experience). And then finally last year, she said, “I just wanted to say, that the last group thought us about God, but now I see God”. What she was saying it wasn’t just talk, just doing something.
There was a heart-to-heart engagement that went beyond any physical thing we were doing, but really being One. And I think that is what we are longing for.
We don’t know it, but we try to satisfy that longing with things, from degrees to cars. When there is really something else that the heart is yearning for, that is that interconnection with all other beings.
And the sense of belonging?
Knowing who we really are. If I think I’m less than what I am, then I don’t function fully. But if I know who I truly am, I function fully. Then there is no sense of deficiency. A happiness and confidence comes with that. That life has meaning. I can seize the essence of a human, I can see the essence, and the preciousness of a human life.
And then everything becomes precious then…
Yes…And this world that is a hell realm becomes a Buddha land.
That’s another trap then. We want to get out of this world, there might be a better one after.
Yeah. The Buddha said, that whatever the seeds you plant that is the tree that’s gonna grow. So you don’t have to be striving and praying to get to heaven. Yeah, you plant good seeds and there’s going to be a good destination. That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to ask anyone can you get in, just plant the seeds and then water.
Do you have one or two more tips you want to tell people listening for the listener who would like to be more at peace with themselves and connected to the world.
Yes, you just said it….listen. If we just open ourselves up to listen to others, without crafting our response while they’re speaking. without thinking they don’t know I’m ,the one who knows. Without tearing apart how they said it, manufacturing in our minds why we think they said it, etc. If we can just learn to develop the practice of listening. Being able to hold our tongue and our thoughts for a few minutes, then our understanding can grow, and we can be better at how we respond.
That is part of what meditation teaches us. It teaches us to take that pause, have that down time, instead of that knee jerk reaction. We’ll become happier, our hearts become healthier. And we’ll be friendlier.
Kristina and myself talk about how we both practice gratitude through the week. For example Kristina looks at the dogs and feels gratitude, and learns from them, from their joyous being, their presence, and ability to stay present and attentive to the moment. It takes so little to make the dogs happy. And that makes them very valuable teachers. This inspires them.
Kristina also notices that when she’s very busy, and having to go off on errands. When she sits down in the car, she takes a few moments to relax and see the environment, and be grateful to look around and notice all that is around her. That she has the freedom to go anywhere she needs to go, so she feels grateful for having a car.
So that’s like a mini-meditation. She can remember all the things in her life that are beneficial. Looking at the sky and trees, and being amazed that we have so much beauty around us. And we need to remind ourselves of that.
Gratitude takes the focus, or shifts the focus away from what we don’t have to what we do have.
Even when being cut off from traffic, you can be grateful for all the things you do have, even in that moment of being cut off. For example, you are protected in the car, the car takes you from A to B, over and over again. What a miraculous piece of engineering! Just realizing those things will help you forget yourself, and decrease any destructive emotions that might arise.
Kristina says that even if you did have to walk to work, that too can be a wonderful experience. And can still be a mindful experience, take a breath and take in the beauty.
She also mentions her friend Betty, who has an answering machine message that says, “Hi, I can’t come to the phone right now, I’m busy counting my blessings. I’ll call you later”. It’s nice to appreciate that we even have a phone.
I like to stop and just think of just 10 things, just in this very moment, that pop up in my head. It gets real easy each time you do it, if you’ve never tried this before.
Kristina is grateful for her breath, due to her severe breath issues. She has lung disease. When you struggle for breath, it’s easy to forget the importance of breath. Just be grateful for breath every moment of our lives. To be alive, and be conscious of the things around us. Our breath is so fundamental, you have to be grateful for breath. Breathe in joy, and exhale the negative thinking. And turn your thoughts around. What am I grateful for?
Usually there is so much more grateful for, then there is not. Its a good exercise to catch yourself when you’re being negative.
Kristina also draws from her experience as a diet counselor for folks who had challenges with obesity and weight loss issues. She talks about gratitude for food. She talks about how we’re just eating. Learning to enjoy every bite, eating mindfully. That we have this amazing body that can taste and digest food.
I think that is one of the reasons why during retreats the eating portion is silent, which allows you to be more present for your food, by turning off at least one more channel.
Yes, Kristina says the eating in front of the television, you can’t really taste your food. Food is just something your’e doing while watching. And it’s better to just eat when your eating. And just appreciate it. One of the causes of all the weight gain, just not being conscious.
Kristina then talks a little about her own introduction to meditation through reading the Three Pillars of Zen and practicing Transcendental Meditation, back when she lived in New York. She found lots of stimuli there, and wanted to be in touch with inner peace, harmony. She also talks about connecting and staying in touch with nature. She would have deep gratitude during those experiences. It helped her be in touch with something so much larger than herself.
In this episode I offer some thoughts on what it means to me to meditate and how it brings about a stillness and settling of mind. I also mention this imprint (Guidepost; Inscription) of Silent Illumination (Shikantaza or Just Sitting) which is recited in some Zen meditation practice centers.
The Imprint of Silent illumination
Silent and serene, one forgets all words:
Clear and vivid, it appears before you.
When one realizes, time has no limits.
When felt deeply, life becomes vibrant.
Singularly illuminating is this bright awareness;
Full of wonder is the pure illumination:
Dew in the moonlight, a river of stars,
Snow-covered pines, clouds hovering on mountain peaks.
In darkness, it glows with brightness;
In shadows, it shines with a splendid light.
Like the dream of a crane flying in the frosty mist,
Like the clear water reaching the autumn sky,
Endless eons dissolve into nothingness,
Each indistinguishable from the other.
In this brightness all striving is forgotten.
What is this wonder? Alertly seeing through confusion
Is the way of silent illumination and the origin of subtle radiance.
Vision penetrating into radiance is weaving gold on a jade loom.
Subject and object influence each other.
Light and darkness are mutually dependent.
(In the audio Youtube clip below you can hear what happens when gigantic cumulonimbus clouds start to build up that will have thunder and lightening as well. Normally we think of thunder sounds after lightening, but in this case, out here in the desert, this rumbling thunder sound can come just from the friction of cloud building) The episode ending has a shorter clip of this sound. Below you can listen to the sound for 8 hours!)
There is neither mind nor world to rely on,
Yet the two mutually interact.
Drink the medicine of correct views,
Beat the poison-smeared drum.
When they interact silence and illumination are complete;
Killing and bringing to life is a choice to make.
At last, through the gate, one emerges.
The fruit has ripened on the branch.
Only this Silence is the ultimate teaching;
Only this Illumination, the universal response.
The teaching, not heard with the ears,
And the response is without effort.
Throughout the universe all things glisten,
And each expounds the Dharma.
They attest to each other,
And accord in dialog responding in perfect harmony.
But when illumination is without stillness,
Then distinctions will be seen and harshness will arrive.
If within stillness brightness is lost,
All will become wasteful and dull.
When Silent Illumination is complete,
The lotus will blossom, the dreamer will awaken.
The hundred streams flow to the ocean,
The thousand mountains face the highest peak.
Like geese preferring milk to water,
Like bees gathering the choicest pollen,
When Silent Illumination reaches the ultimate,
It penetrates from the most subtle to the greatest.
I embody the original tradition of my lineage:
The body, sunyata and the arms, mudra.
From the beginningless to endless, only one task,
though expressed in 10,000 shapes and forms.
The basic matter of our line
hits the mark straight and true.
Pass this on in all directions
without a wish for gain.
This is the practice called Silent Illumination.
By Hongzhi Zhengjue; translated by Sheng Yen; adapted by Mountain Lamp
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In this post I would like to share some practical ideas for how you can easily bring meditation into your daily work life. This might be especially helpful if your current workplace does not have a dedicated meditation room, or higher level endorsement of this beneficial practice.
I’ll show you how you can incorporate, “mini”-meditations and mindfulness at your place of work, without having to look weird, or needing a, “meditation room”.
This said, having a dedicated meditation room in the workplace would of course be a great asset and high level endorsement of wellness!
I don’t have Time to Meditate at Work!
You may think that you don’t have time to meditate at work! Sure, most of us don’t have dedicated chunks of time during the day to practice formal meditation.
No problem! Lets break down a workday, and see how you can get the benefits from meditation during your workday. Some simple techniques can help you stay fresh throughout the day, and also help you through that afternoon slump.
Most of our jobs involves a lot of sedentary sitting at a computer. But you still get up to go to meetings, or get some water, get your lunch, pick up your mail, go to the restroom, etc. Each of those transitions are opportunities for a quick mini-meditation!
A meditation does not need to be a certain number of minutes or a designated time to be of benefit.
Don’t take my word for it. Try it out and verify with your own experience right now!
Try this Mini-Meditation!
If you are sitting in an office, straighten your back if possible, with your head and ears in alignment with your shoulders.
Put your feet flat on the ground and feel the connection of your feet to the ground.
Lay your hands on your lap, so that your shoulders can totally relax.
Check your breathing, let the breathing relax as well.
Now close your eyes, especially if your screen is still on.
Take just 10 deep and conscious breaths, not hurrying it, or slowing it down on purpose, just 10 relaxed breaths.
Count on each in breath, so that for each in, and out-breath, it counts as one. You can count to 5 (each in and out breath counting as one, next in breath and out breath, count as 2, and so on until your count is at 5 or 10, then return back to one).
Add another 10 if you have another minute!
After you have opened your eyes, tell me you don’t feel just a little bit better!
In all likelihood these 10 breaths took you about a minute of your time. Now imagine doing this multiple times a day, maybe once an hour, and you start to see how this feeling of relaxation and recharging and refreshed clarity might benefit your day at work and into the evening and next day.
Breaking Down a Work Day
So, let’s take a workday and break it down to see where you can squeeze in some mini-meditations.
Going to Work
First going to work. Most of us get into a car, or you get into the subway, or perhaps you are walking or biking to work.
All of these transitions give you an opportunity to meditate if even only for a few breaths.
In the case of your car, be mindful of getting in the car and sitting down. Why not close your eyes and take 3-10 breaths before cranking the engine? Try it, and you will find yourself more intentional and conscious behind the wheel, which will also keep you safer and more awake on the road.
Now say you’re driving, if you like to listen to the radio, you could once in a while hit the pause button, or take a break from listening to the radio (maybe during a commercial) and again breathe consciously for 5 or 10 breaths at a time (there is more distraction while driving, so 10 breaths will be harder to keep track of at the same time you’re trying to be focused on driving.)
Another opportunity to do this simple breath meditation, is while waiting at a stoplight or traffic jam. Why not use the stop lights as small opportunities to meditate? Especially since they may seem like time wasters and may even be frustrating.
Make that waiting your queue to meditate, and become aware of how tempting it is to not want to be present in the moment, because you want to be at your destination.
These are all ways we can become aware of how easy it is to avoid the present moment, because there is always something better in the future to look forward to. The problem with that is that we then end up “missing our appointment with the present” as Thich Nhat Hanh has so wisely observed.
For the subway, bike, and walking meditation, use similar technique as explained above. Find something as your queue to do a short meditation, like waiting for the doors of the subway to close, or waiting at a pedestrian light.
Walking Meditation to your office
So those are some ideas of what you can do to incorporate meditation on the way to work. Same thing when you leave your car to walk into the building. Use the walk to your office to practice walking meditation.
This doesn’t mean you have to walk super slow; just be conscious while walking. Slowing down helps, as we do hurry a lot, and are overall as a species walking faster than we did a decade ago.
Pay attention, and hear the birds, or jackhammer, or cab honking, or fans above your head as you walk underneath them.
Notice your feet walking over the concrete. Notice your breath as you walk in various situations. Is it hurried as you walk over the boardwalk? Does it slow down as you walk on a quiet hallway?
Each breath is unique, and each breath will inform and teach you about how present, relaxed, or tense you are in that moment. Is your breathing coming from your chest or lower down from your abdomen?
The lower and more relaxed your belly and breathing, the more beneficial for your oxygen distribution and your well-being. If your breathing is tense and shallow, don’t worry, just keep practicing. It may just be tense in certain circumstances.
With consistent practice, it will over time get relaxed more often, and you’ll start enjoying the present moment more and more. This will happen even in parts of your life that you previously thought were “boring” or “tedious”.
Opening Doors Meditation
So now you’re at the office, how do you open the door? Is it conscious, or on auto-pilot? How do you greet your workplace by way of opening the door and entering into what is a Big part of your life? This stepping into your office may be a good time to internally think about some of the reasons why you are grateful to have this particular job (even if it is not what you want to do the rest of your life). Being grateful as you get in the office will help you feel good and more purposeful about why you are there at that time
It will likely also make your day go more smoothly, even when there are fires.
Sitting Down into Your Office Chair
So now you sit down or stand to start the work day. That moment of sitting down, just like in the case of getting into the car or subway, is another opportunity to take a few breaths and pay attention to how you sit down and go about your work day.
Check your posture, that it is upright and not tense. Same with your arms, if they’re tense from holding the mouse, it will manifest itself as tightness in your shoulders and neck and turn into repetitive strain.
Now the trick is to maintain that upright posture throughout the day. And of course it is very easy to get totally absorbed in your tasks and end up slumping towards your screen or sitting way too long at a time.
So here are a couple of ideas you can try to avoid that slump creeping up on your as the day wears on, which then can turn into fatigue, if not checked.
What has worked well for me while working in various job environments and continues to do so, is setting timers. I’ll link to a couple of options here. You can use a Youtube meditation timer, such as this 8 hour video, with a mindfulness bell or bells going off, every so many minutes.
You can also install a mindfulness timer app on your computer or smartphone, to help remind you to get up and move around or meditate for a minute or two.
I’ve also tried kitchen timers, however, the mindfulness bells sound way nicer!
One caveat though, if you use meditation bells too often, you may end up ignoring them. So vary them up if need be. And one thing I’ve noticed about a kitchen timer, is that if you use one that keeps on beeping until you reset it, it will force you to get up from sitting, and this will have the beneficial effect of forcing you to move. You can then utilize that pause to reset the timer as an opportunity to walk stairs, or do some stretches, exercises, or do some cleaning.
I’ve gathered all kinds of mindfulness bells and timers here on one page:
Once you have picked a mindfulness sound that works well for you, I would suggest trying different settings and see which one is most optimal for you.
For example, you could try a bell once every 30 minutes, or perhaps in a very demanding day, at least try once an hour.
If you can’t take a 5 minute walk, at least close your eyes in front of your computer, and just allow yourself to breathe for 10 or 20 breaths as mentioned earlier in this post.
As always recommended, please check your posture while doing that to make sure it is upright and awake.
This also has the added benefit of giving your eyes a break from staring at a monitor.
Getting Up and Walking is Crucial for Your Health!
Because extensive sedentary sitting is now known to not be healthy, and is now even compared to the harm of cigarettes. If possible, also try getting up for a brief 5 minute walks through the hallways or staircases of your office or office building. (An outside walk is of course even better. Try to fit that into your day routine as well if possible)
If you have staircases, great! Staircases are ideal, because they are very conducive to meditation. They are quiet, sparse in decorations (distractions), and peaceful. Give that a try! Stairs also have the added health benefits of being a good workout for your body.
If you have only a couple flights of stairs in your building, then just go up and down several times depending on how much time you have.
A consistent slower pace might be more conducive for meditation and mindful walking.
The nice thing about that, is that if you do this every hour or 45 minutes, that when you get back to your desk, your blood is flowing again, your brain is oxygenated, and you can then fully do another chunk of focused work again and be very productive!
You can also do the same type of quick mini-break whenever you walk to the restrooms, the water cooler, or fridge, and before a meeting.
By all means experiment, try things out, the idea is just to incorporate or weave small little mini-meditations throughout your day.
The restroom doesn’t just have to be a place to “get your business over with”.
It can also be a rest-room, where you can take a minute or two to meditate!
For guys like me, even when standing, you can still take an extra 5-10 breaths before finishing up. That’s standing meditation. Same when washing hands, and drying. I notice with many people, the whole procedure is hurried, and treated like an inconvenience. Especially when there are lots of thoughts and busyness in the mind, it will express itself in the way you wash, and dry your hands.
In my case, I often drink about a glass of water an hour, so that consequently meant about one restroom break every hour or two.
If you are a director or manager and you are having issues with unproductive meetings, try and incorporate a one minute meditation right before starting a meeting.
Allow everyone to enjoy some calm and a few moments of silence, and create a collaborative meeting environment where team members can feel included, whether they are extroverted or introverted. Create a conducive meeting environment where it is less about showing off and more about drawing out and giving room to each team member’s talent. Where attention is gathered, instead of scattered.
During lunch take notice of what you’re eating, really enjoy your food. And be mindful of how much you eat and how it affects the rest of your afternoon. If you eat mindfully, and slower, your belly will be able to signal that it is satisfied better, thus decreasing the risk of eating to much. Eating too much, or too much sugar may cause an afternoon slump.
See if you can repeat the above process of taking breaks in the afternoon. As you get better at it, notice how it may be harder to do the meditation/walking breaks in the afternoon.
If taking meditation breaks is more difficult, it is most likely because our will power decreases as the day wears on, we of course get more tired.
All the more reason perhaps to focus even more on these little breaks. It will much improve how you feel in the afternoon. Remember that by breathing fully and mindfully, it helps our brain keep oxygenated, which will help us feel more awake and fresh and available for each moment.
Be Kind to Yourself!
Lastly, be kind to yourself, don’t beat yourself up if you are doing this hundreds of times, and you don’t see whatever results you are expecting, or you forget to do it, etc.
I stumble with this practice all the time too. And it can be more difficult if your environment or job changes a lot. You’ll have to then develop new mindfulness cues and routines.
Just let it go, and try again at the next opportunity and tomorrow.
Start with one moment during your workday. With one thing that is easiest for you, and continue to incorporate more and more moments, or mini-meditations throughout your workday.
This mindfulness practice is a way of life, an ongoing process of becoming more aware and awake, not a goal to reach or something to cross of the list of things to “do”.
This is not about doing, it’s about learning to be here and now, and show up and fully appreciate your one and only precious life. In the process, you will increase your appreciation for everything else as well.
Enjoy the stumbles and discoveries of being forgetful and messing up. It is a wonderful gift just to be able to take a deep spacious breath and feel alive. And let me know if you tried any of this and what your experience was in the comments below!
MF 25 – Charlie Ambler from The Daily Zen Talks about his Meditation Journey
Note: This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview.
What brought you to a meditation practice?
Charlie describes himself growing up as a rather impulsive and anxious. His grandmother (a music historian) interviewed John Cage, the composer at one point. He gave her a copy of a book on Zen Buddhism. Charlie ran into the book, as a 13 year old kid, and was curious about it.
He got more and more interested in Buddhism, and started reading more about it online as well. He then started practicing it in his room, the various breathing meditation exercises. He settled on simple and direct method of Zazen Meditation breathing. He’s 22 at the time of this interview, so it’s been about 9 years since he first got interested in Buddhism and meditation.
Charlie finds that if he doesn’t meditate regularly, then he’s more prone to anxiety, destructive ways of thinking and harmful habits. He then feels generally less centered, and less creative.
And what specific practice are you using at this time?
Now he’s doing zazen meditation, or breath counting.
He remembers the old saying,
“Let your thoughts come and go,
but you don’t serve them tea.”
Have you noticed changes in your day to day life?
When he was younger, it was easier to meditate, there was less, a smaller bank of sensory information. Meditation was easier, despite the fact that he was a hyperactive kid. But now with all the reading he’s doing, and responsibilities and things and thoughts that come with adulthood, and the busy life in the big city (New York) he finds it more difficult to practice. But for that reason it is more challenging and rewarding as well. All the more reason why it is so important for him to do it each day.
He practices detaching himself from wanting to get anything out of it. Meditation becomes very difficult when you want to get something out of it.
You get into a chasing mind, which makes it all the harder.
Yeah you get into thinking about thinking, a circular cycle. Once you allow yourself to step back from your own thoughts, and get less stressed out. It helps, gives your problems less importance, let them come to pass.
Has your practice changed your outlook on life, you post on your web site how your thinking has changed?
When Charlie started he was reading about meditation he ran into more of a new age corporate way of viewing meditation practice. Like how a meditation practice would allow you to accomplish your goals, do your job really well, etc. But then as he dug deeper into the eastern writing behind meditation, he realized that the Zen school was more talking about divorcing yourself from attachment to expectations and outcomes.
He realized that this was part of this larger concept, well illustrated in Taoist writings, where you step back from something, you have this strange side-effect where you end up achieving it, by stepping back. He then quotes:
By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond the winning.
Charlie finds that when you practice meditation for a while, you don’t find yourself planning ahead 10 years ahead. He finds himself less trying to achieve things, instead to just do things. The funny contradiction in that is that when you stop caring so much about the results of what you’re doing, you end up doing a ton more.
Ever since Charlie has really implemented that philosophy, he finds himself far less anxious about starting things. Just throw yourself into things, just do them. The key is to just do things, not care about the results. Learn from them yes. Sometimes the results is just garbage, and sometimes it works out.
There is also a part of understanding how who you are changes, the attachment and creations of personas changes too..
Definitely, Charlie found himself confronting himself with the Zen idea of true self, and how you find your true self by looking inward.
There’s the true self, a healthy ego, who you really are, and the false self ego, which is a combination of the various personas, cultural and social influences.
Yes, the meditation practice has helped me at least partially shed ideas of who he thinks he’s supposed to be. Make him less prone to idolizing and trying to be like other people. To learn from people, but not to emulate them. Or imitate them. Take only what feels true to himself. That questioning yourself and your beliefs seems to come naturally to Charlie when he meditates. Try to do something that is more in alignment with who he really is. Move away from things that are not in alignment with his real self.
Would you say your project with the daily Zen is more in alignment with who you really are?
Yes, it is now. The greatest gift I got from working on this site, is figuring out who I am. It’s reflected his own internal struggles with writing. Like periods with lots of sappy quotes, that don’t really have much meaning. Or the derivative articles like, “10 things to help you do your job better” listicles, that I thought I was supposed to write about. He then decided recently, like a year ago, that he wants to do this for a while. He wants to do it in a way that reflects himself, and feels true to himself.
So he removed all ads, and simply do writing and pretty art like images. This writing blog practice helped him do something that gives him fulfillment. Even if no one read it, Charlie would feel grateful.
Yes, the Daily Zen now really expresses who I’m actually am. Charlie finally feels that it is real to him, because it expresses who he actually is. This makes the writing so much easier, because he’s writing from his own point of view, about concepts he encounters while he meditates. Instead of trying to emulate Thích Nhất Hạnh, or Allan Watts.
If he gets lazy, and stops meditating, the process becomes much more difficult.It encourages him to continue his practice. And the practice itself provides him with most of the content.
Do you practice with others?
No it’s always been a solitary pursuit. He’s gone through a few sessions, but trying to get to a point where he can lead meditation sessions.
So the Daily Zen website is one way that encourages you to continue to practice..
Definitely, the following has grown significantly, and that provides a social element that keeps me practicing. Everyday that gives a level of encouragement.
For the folks that don’t know about your web site, is it just the site, or also the Twitter and Facebook account.
It started exclusively as a twitter account. when Twitter was very young. That is where he feels the biggest sense of community with it. Most of the discussion is on Facebook and Twitter, but most of the social interaction is on Twitter. And it is fun, and zen in a way, because twitter’s 140 character limit. They have to be brief! Good forum for quotes and aphorisms.
What have you found that resonates the most with people on Twitter?
Short statements by himself or found in other places like quotes from books, that elucidates a certain idea about compassion, or meditation, or mindfulness. Sort of brief aphoristic statements do very well, sometimes way better than I anticipated. I share long posts, but most favorite and successful are quotes.
That resonate with you as well?
Yes, my own favorites, like little zen proverbs.
“After enlightenment, the laundry”.
“Let go or be dragged!”
Quotes by Tolle, Osho, Thay, Alan Watts, spiritual teachers, etc.
Others are little bits of wisdom that reveal ideas that is like zen in nature. Even Nietsche who hated Buddhism, who has similar ideas nevertheless.
“When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” Where your world is made up your thoughts. And what comprises your thoughts ends up coloring the way that you experience the world. That really ties close into what my experience of meditation is.
You mention on one of your posts,
“The world becomes amazing when we acknowledge mere existence as a miracle in and of itself, and when we appreciate what is and has always been, rather than what could be.”
How did that understanding occur to you at some point?
Yes, that is something a way of thinking that occurs during meditation at some point. Appreciating everything equally. Where there is no judging things as good or bad, just letting them wash over you. It comes for Charlie as a comedown from good things in relationships and things like achievements that happen. There is a return to reality once the euphoria washes away.
That state is pretty arbitrary, that sense of contentment, and that state of euphoria is available at any time… We’re taught that it needs a stimulus (like a great job, or getting some other reward) before you can feel this excitement about life. If you learn to discipline your mind , you can experience it just by looking at for example an animal, or the sky, doing anything, etc. That is the biggest take away from that type of non-judgement that occurs during meditation.
I think there is also an element of slowing down that helps with this appreciation of the miracle of life. You mention about humans fabricating needs, and things that keep us from experiencing the miracle that is life right in front of our noses. Quote from Charlie’s web site:
“A false sense of necessity is the mother of invention, and humans will never rid themselves of this need to fabricate new needs. We can learn from cats and other animals to relax, to love in a simple way, to eat when we’re eating and sit when we’re sitting. Humans always seem to be existing for something else, but animals exist for the here-and-now.”
It’s a weird thing and weird political idea. There is this, “the cult of progress”. Constantly building new things, going to the next level. That to him represents the the kind of societal craving that individuals have that makes them unhappy. He wonders if that is contributing to a mass unhappiness. People so obsessed with the future, because of technology and all these other things. And as a result forget the past and neglect the present.
Yeah, that’s where I’m at, its the kind of practice that makes it OK to change your mind. Change is OK, 6 months I might feel differently.
Any example of where you bring your meditation practice with you?
It is easy trap when you live in a major metropolitan area to be totally inundated by the chaos, sensory information overload in modern cities are really insane places. Sometimes it still jars me. Like when I go into an area, like times square, or Manhattan, with a lot of skyscrapers, it used to paralyze me, how artificial is, it used to give me anxiety.
But now I see myself as part of the whole thing, I’m a functioning part of this thing. Just like Alan Watts says you’re a functioning part of the universe. He has a great speech about New York City, where he teaches his audience to view the city, as akin to a human body, with all the organs, where it functions autonomously, thanks to all the individual cells. And the cells end up being individual people, animals, and machines.
Living in the city forces you to see yourself as not apart from the city, but as very much part of the fabric. That translates for me into everything. You’re part of everything, and someday you die, you don’t disappear, you just transform into a different thing. Its this concept of universality, recognizing that you are part of everything. It didn’t cause me anxiety or an inflated sense of ego. When you understand it in some way, it’s a humbling experience.
You don’t really feel forced to assert yourself.
But at the same time it doesn’t make you so small that you become non-existent, there is something that also comes forth that brings forth your unique individual contribution…
Yes, there is this Jiddish concept that my mother really likes, called the jadsahara. This idea that you are both a speck of dust, as well the universe. So folks either feel either on top of the world, or feel insignificant. The key, I think is instead you want to go beyond one side or the other, transcending both, realize that you are both. Both insignificant, and very significant. If you’re alive, you’re always going to exist in some form or another.
So does this also change your choices, and intentions, as a result of how they live on in some way or another..
Yes, that is how I view karma, the ripple effect of your actions.