Category Archives: Interconnectedness

Tuning Our Mindfulness Dial

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Self-awareness is one of the primary objectives of meditation. Living  mindfully depends on our being aware of what is going on inside of and around us at each passing moment. Meditation sharpens and refocuses our awareness, both of self and surroundings. Debbie Gisonni talks about the importance of self-awareness in the Huffington Post. I wasn’t aware until reading her post that September is Self-Awareness Month. Our goal should be to make every day Self-Awareness Day, stringing them together to create a Self-Awareness Year and, ultimately, a Self-Awareness Life.

Meditation also reawakens us to the realization that self and surroundings are not separate but, rather, are inextricably linked. One way to define living mindfully is living in the awareness of that connection to all things at all times.

Awareness and mindfulness are kind of like an analog radio with a dial. Anyone remember what it used to be like to keep your radio on a particular station when you had to get the knob in the approximately correct position, before radio dials became LED number readouts? C’mon, don’t be shy, I know some of you are as old as I am. I won’t tell. Well, perhaps you saw one in a museum once…

During the day, awareness and mindfulness may ebb and flow, like the tuning on the radio drifting away from and then back toward the station you want to listen to. Meditation can be compared with adjusting the dial to reestablish our awareness and mindfulness so that our connection to the oneness of creation comes in loud and clear once again. Depending on how long it has been since our last “tuning,” meditation can be a very slight adjustment to the awareness dial or a more substantial twist of the knob.

Making little adjustments to our mindfulness throughout the day is a good way to keep from drifting too far away from awareness. But it is not always practical for us to practice our meditation during the day, while at work or school or traveling. One thing that I finds helps is to remind myself to breathe throughout the day; that is, to pause for just a minute to focus on breathing in and out deeply (or whatever breathing practice works best for you). I do this in two ways. First, I tacked a sign to the wall above my computer at work that simply reads, “Breathe.” Whenever I glance at it, I follow the one-word instruction. Second, I open my computer browser at the start of each workday and point it to the Washington Mindfulness Community’s Mindfulness Bell. I set it to ring every 15 minutes and, when it does, I take four long, deep breaths. But you can set the bell to ring as often or little as you like, even randomly, and can adjust the sound of the bell.

Whatever tools we use, it is important that we employ them to keep ourselves in tune throughout the day with ourselves, those around us, and the connection we share.

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Disconnecting to Reconnect

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When I was a kid, my dad called television “the boob tube.” Meaning, prolonged exposure to TV turned one into a brainless boob. The multitude of electronic distractions that we have now includes TV as only one of many, and probably down the list a ways.

There is a backlash of sorts occurring, with the aim of getting people to “unplug.” Not go wireless, mind you, but simply shut down the cell phone, computer, tablet, TV, and let your mind heal. Yes, I said heal, recover from the damage that too much “connectivity” does to our minds and spirits.

I suffer from this as much as anyone, so don’t think I’m casting stones. My glass house wouldn’t withstand a handful of pebbles. I just want to offer the suggestion that meditation is a viable alternative. We’re not talking a complete swap here — give up technology in favor of a life meditating in a secluded cave — just a relative handful of the moments that you might otherwise be using to text, chat, upload, download, pin, share, like, and so on. No one is asking for the technological equivalent of asceticism.

We have conned ourselves into thinking that we need all of our gizmos in order to connect, either because we forgot or never knew that we are naturally connected to all beings already. Meditation and mindfulness make us aware of that pervasive interconnectedness. Or, perhaps I should say, they allow us to shed the layers of interference — electronic and otherwise — that shield us from sensing our connection with the universe and benefitting from it.

Here’s a little meditation I stumbled across today about disconnecting from the TV. It’s equally applicable to other kinds of technology and media. Why not give it a try?

If you’re not already doing so, why not follow Dharma Beginner on Twitter, @dharmabeginner. I find lots of really interesting and relevant articles everyday and post links to them on Twitter. Okay, I realize the contradiction in encouraging you to unplug and then plugging my own Twitter account. But, if you’re going to be online anyway…

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Oprah, Meet Ommmmmma

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What can it mean when Oprah Winfrey is becoming a leading touter of meditation? I’ll tell you what it means: a lot more people are going to start meditating. If Oprah can do for meditation with her 21-Day Meditation Challenge what she did for reading with her book club, the cosmic consciousness is going to get an enormous boost.

The following is an article about Oprah’s recent appearance on David Letterman’s show, ostensibly to publicize her new movie, but which ultimately became one big plug for the benefits of meditation. Oprah teamed up last year with Deepak Chopra to create the meditation challenge and, by all accounts, it appears to have touched the lives of many people who otherwise might never have tried meditation. Imagine the benefits to all beings if just a fraction of those people continue beyond the three weeks to practice meditation regularly. What a wondrous development that would be!

Chopra may be the model for successfully espousing the benefits of Eastern practices and medicine in the West. Some people think he waters down the practices he preaches to make them more palatable to the masses. But, even if that is true, what’s wrong with it? You cannot expect most people to sit down and meditate in silence for an hour right off the bat. Or ever, for that matter. I think that, by and large, Chopra manages to make meditation and other practices more accessible without robbing them of their value.

I am mindful of a verse from the Letter to the Hebrews: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need some one to teach you again the first principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food; for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Chapter 4, verses 12-14) Not everyone can start out with the meditative equivalent of solid food. Sure, it’s pabulum, but not in the negative “baby food” sense – it is really a very nourishing meal that the newcomer to meditation can easily digest.

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The Best (and Worst) 12-12-12 I’ve Ever Experienced

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The night of 12-12-12 was a study in contrasts for me. On the one hand, I was very fortunate to be able to attend the 12.12.12 Concert to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims. If you saw any of it on TV, then you have a sense of what an incredible experience it was. The emotions in Madison Square Garden were real and palpable.

On the other hand, there was an extraordinarily challenging person standing next to me for over six hours (when she wasn’t excusing her way in front of me over a dozen times to fetch beer or whatever). Long story short: she spent much of the night invading my personal space. Perhaps you might say that it is ridiculous to expect to maintain personal boundaries during a crowded and often raucous concert. No disagreement there; I attend many concerts every year, frequently standing in general admission, and am well familiar with the experience of a tightly packed and enthusiastic crowd. I’ve done my time in the mosh pit.

But this was no run of the mill invasion of private space. It was a full on, preemptive tactical nuclear strike at my private space. The private space version of Seal Team Six storming Osama bin Laden’s compound. This otherwise pleasant woman (we chatted amiably for the first hour or so) would not stop touching me—holding my hand and lifting it up into the air, looping her arm through mine, resting her head on my shoulder. No matter how far I turned away from her, no matter how I contorted my body like a yogi, I could not escape her tentacular reach.

Did I mention that I brought my 16 year old daughter to the concert? I inched closer and closer to her on my right-hand side as I sought to escape my friendly neighbor to the left. At one very loud point in the concert (Kanye West’s lower-intestine-vibrating performance?) my daughter shouted in my ear, “What is that woman’s problem?” Actually, it sounded like, “Why do goblins hate Gollum?” But that would be a ridiculous thing to have said at that moment, even with The Hobbit opening this week. Somehow, my brain intuited her meaning.

Upshot: At a time when I should have been out of my mind with excitement at the panoply of stellar musicians performing before my eyes, my attention was being divided between the stage and the seat next to me. I wrote recently about praying for challenging people, so with that freshly in mind I offered some prayers for my grabby new friend. Except, my initial prayers came out mostly as pleas that some greater power would stop her. Praying for her necessitated thinking about what was going on with her, why she was behaving that way, what kind of suffering she had experienced and wished to be relieved of.

With everything that was going on in the arena, that was nigh on impossible. But I did elicit some personal details. She had lost her home last year during Hurricane Irene. No doubt, she can feel more keenly than most the losses that Sandy victims have endured, and that reminder must have been painful to experience. What’s more, here she was witnessing an outpouring of love and financial support to the victims of Sandy, likely making the efforts to help the victims of Irene seem paltry by comparison. As she said to me, no one helped her rebuild her home.

The focus of the prayers I offered from that point on—relief from the lingering pain of losing her home and from the reopening of fresh wounds from last year—shifted my perspective on the situation. Gradually, I felt myself relax, the tension in my back and neck melt away, as compassion for a fellow being replaced discomfort and annoyance at her behavior. I didn’t, by any means, offer myself up to be groped, but I did stop turning away from her, both physically and emotionally. I could not see how to ease her pain at that moment, but I certainly could refrain from adding to it.

In the words of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, “If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”

Be well, my friends. Peace be yours.

Praying for Difficult People

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There are some things that we are told when young that never stray very far from our thoughts. One of those things, for me, was this: “If you feel anger toward someone, or hatred, pray for their wellbeing. From that time forward, you will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to continue feeling angry toward them, or to continue hating them.”

Many years later, I read the Dalai Lama’s instructions regarding meditating on compassion. He instructed that one should envision those who we find difficult as if they were our mother—holding up a mother as a person that we are accustomed to loving unconditionally. (In reality, the mother image may not work for everyone—think wire coat hangers and “Mommy Dearest” for instance—but one can just as easily envision them as someone else that we love without reservation, just because.) If one is a Buddhist, then one knows that in the infinite lifetimes we have lived, each person was at some time our mother, our father, our sibling, our best friend, and therefore received that type of love from us before. I find with this practice—as I did with the advice I received growing up to pray for those toward whom I feel anger—that it changes your perspective. How can you envision someone as your dearly loved one and continue to hold their difficultness against them?

I discovered the same thing on a grander scale listening to Pema Chödrön talk about tonglen. The practice of breathing in the suffering of all living beings and sending out happiness and freedom from suffering to all living beings with your exhalation builds on your altruistic nature and orients you toward compassion for everyone. It is like taking that advice about praying for difficult people, or the Dalai Lama’s instructions, to the utmost level—developing a loving relationship with everyone at the same time. It helps to establish, I think, a natural inclination toward compassion and love in all of our encounters with fellow beings.

Why don’t you give one of these practices a try today? Think of someone who has felt like a thorn in your side and pray for his or her wellbeing, for his or her happiness and freedom from suffering, for the same things you wish for yourself. Or imagine that person as your dearest loved one and pour out toward him or her, in your mind, all the love and affection you would give him or her if they were your loved one. Or take 5 minutes sitting comfortably, in silence, focusing on your breathing, and imagine with each inhale that you are taking all the suffering of every being around the world into yourself, and with each exhale you are sending back to them happiness and joy and health and love.

Maybe it won’t make a difference the first time (many people tell me it does—it took me a few times). Don’t give up right away. Keep trying, and I promise it will make a difference in your life and your relationships. I’d love to hear how it turns out—drop me a note in the comment section below. Peace and love be yours.

Meditation, Mindfulness, and the Issue of Race

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Jaweed Kaleem writes on the Huffington Post about the growth of racially based meditation groups in and out of the Buddhist community in the U.S. (“Buddhist ‘People Of Color Sanghas,’ Diversity Efforts Address Conflicts About Race Among Meditators”). He describes one such group: “This class of Buddhist meditation was for beginners, tailor-made for minorities. … No whites were allowed.” The participants in the group – and others like them – were led to take this step because they felt excluded from the broader community, especially in areas like Seattle that are not racially diverse.

This is an issue for many religions and practices, not just meditation and Buddhism. It is fraught with contradictions. In my opinion, anything that can help people learn a practice of meditation and mindfulness is welcome, even these racially based groups. However, Kaleem gets to the heart of the controversy when these groups are not just meditation-oriented, but also ostensibly Buddhist: “One of the prime focuses [of Buddhism] is on letting go of any attachment to the individual self. The aim is to be one with the wider spiritual world in the pursuit of harmony, and ideally, that includes going beyond skin color differences.”
I am concerned that there are people of color who feel excluded from the larger community of meditators. In the short run, these race-based groups may be a reasonable solution, which may be why some prominent Buddhist leaders have endorsed them. But I think the answer, in the longer run, is to address what the broader community is doing – intentionally or unintentionally – that makes people of color feel uncomfortable or unwanted. At the same time, we need to ask people of color why they feel excluded because it is difficult for me to accept that practitioners of meditation and mindfulness would actively seek to exclude anyone. It is not that people who live mindfully are necessarily better people, or are completely free of bias – it is just that I don’t know how anyone can practice meditation and mindfulness and continue to view those around them as “different” from themselves. Perhaps I am naive or too wishful.
I believe these tings because I do not think dividing into groups based on “distinctions” such as race is ultimately consistent with meditation and mindfulness practice. I see unity as a natural outgrowth of living mindfully because I believe that mindfulness means seeing things as they really are – and in “reality,” we are all one, indivisible, connected, inseparable.

Action

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“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them?” ~ Buddha

This saying of the Buddha is quite stark, black and white, and therefore perhaps a bit extreme. Certainly, good words—read and spoken—have a positive impact on us, and thereby on the rest of creation, to which we are connected. But words fall short of their potential if they are not a prelude to action. After all, “Actions speak louder than words,” right?

The Buddha himself was no “do as I say, not as I do” leader. He definitely had a lot to say to his followers. I believe, however, that what truly inspired his followers then—and continues to inspire us today—is that the Buddha’s words were a reflection of his actions. His teaching was believable because he was already living it.

Maybe another way to approach these words is to say, “Just act rightly and don’t worry about the words.” Your actions tell the real story anyway, no matter what you say. Think of what we could accomplish if all of the time and energy currently devoted to talking were giving over instead to doing. We would certainly benefit from the additional actions, as well as from far less talk that accomplishes little, if anything, on its own.

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Love

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[An all new feature: you can listen to the Dharma Beginner blog! Whoopee! Click here for Dharma Beginner’s Audio Blog]

My last blog post considered hate, musing about whether it is possible to live without it. I marveled at how casually it is used in everyday speech (does anyone really hate spinach?). And I attempted to make the case for “non-hate”—love.

But I find that love is a complicated concept as well. Or, maybe I am making it more complex than it needs to be. It’s been known to happen.

It seems to me that the word “love” is thrown around as frivolously as “hate”:

  • “I love peanut butter.”
  • “I love my new car.”
  • “I love the Mets.”
  • “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

The word is used with a casualness that robs it of its meaning. Can you really love peanut butter? I mean, it’s one of my favorite foods, but…it’s food. Would I put my life on the line for peanut butter? Sacrifice for it? Work for its freedom from suffering? Of course not. So how can I really love it? Because those are the things you do for love.

When we so readily say “love” when we actually mean “like a lot,” or “enjoy,” or “find pleasure in,” what does it really mean when we tell our significant others, our children, our parents, “I love you”? Gee, thanks…you put me on a par with your Subaru…

How do we answer the call to show love to all beings? Do we even know what that means? I’ve struggled with this a lot lately, as I’ve been wrestling with hate. In that last blog post, I shared my ponderings about whether it is okay not to hate people who have committed heinous acts, like Osama bin Laden and Hitler. I’ll refrain here from exploring the companion question, which is if it is possible to love everyone, even people like that. Let’s save the opening of that Pandora’s box for another time.

So I will return to the question of what it means to love. I don’t think it requires approval of a person’s actions, or liking them, or wanting to be close to them. I think it means feeling compassion for them as beings who suffer—just like me and you—and who want to be free of that suffering—just like you and me. I think it means wanting them to be free of their suffering, even wanting to be the instrument of that freedom.

I mentioned in that last blog post the example of the Dalai Lama’s attitude toward Chinese government officials. He certainly does not condone any of their atrocities, but I have heard him say that he has compassion for them, is concerned for them, and wishes them to be free of their suffering. My interpretation: he feels love for them.

Is there a difference between showing or feeling love for someone and loving them? Perhaps, but I think it is razor thin, maybe just semantics.

In my mid-twenties I was testing what I perceived to be a calling to the priesthood. The rector of my parish asked me to deliver the sermon at Sunday Mass every so often during that time. One such Sunday, the topic of my sermon was love. The sermon lasted 45 minutes and I had barely scratched the surface! The groans from the congregation were audible and frequent. I promised myself I’d never try to bite off a topic that broad again. Oh well…

The Big Uneasy

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I just got back from a trip to New Orleans on business, and it was a real eye-opener. This was not the first time I’ve been there since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, but it was the first time I had ventured away from downtown and seen what Katrina hath wrought. Though I’ve heard many tales from friends and colleagues who live in New Orleans and were displaced by the storm, this was the first time I really saw the lasting damage that it had done to the populace.

Riding a public bus out to the Jazz and Cultural Heritage Festival, I saw building after building boarded up, uninhabitable even if someone wanted to open a business in them. Houses lay in ruins. Open lots were full of weed-choked debris. Though the touristy part of the city, downtown and the French Quarter, look relatively unscathed, the rest of the city and surrounding areas are, for lack of a better word, seriously scathed.

Barely a sentence seems to be uttered by Orleanians without mention of Hurricane Katrina. It might be tiresome if the hurricane’s terrible legacy weren’t so evident. Katrina changed everything there. Amazingly, the citizens and their leaders have done some amazing things in the almost seven years since. Entire neighborhoods have been rebuilt. A new school system (or, as educators down there prefer to refer to it now, a system of schools) was created from scratch essentially, and in the next two years every single school will be in a new and thoroughly reconstructed building. Yet something like 3 out of 10 residents have yet to return, and the homeless—always front and center in the past—seem to outnumber the tourists in some parts of the city. Nothing comes easy these days in the Big Easy.

The ghost-like nature of the boarded-up businesses and homes reminded me a lot of what I saw last year in Belize. The parallels are startling. Both are incredibly beautiful places full of lovely, warm-hearted people. Both are suffering from crushing poverty. Both have economies that are entirely too dependent on tourism, with little prospect for developing alternative sources of income. Both are populated with the husks of former houses and businesses. Think of it—Katrina turned New Orleans into a third-world country.

I came away from my few days in New Orleans moved by its plight, choked up by its pain, saddened by its losses, but encouraged by its resiliency. The people of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes need our prayers and energy as much as our business and resources, and we need for them to return to vibrancy, health, and prosperity in order to restore our universal shared energy and peace.

Dharma Digest, Vol. 1, No. 3

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Some items recently posted to the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook, www.facebook.com/dharmabegin.

Love Thine Enemy

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

I’d like to pass along one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received: If you are angry at someone, if you think of them as your enemy, pray for them. You cannot remain angry at someone you pray for; someone you pray for… cannot long be considered your enemy. my own experience has borne this out.

Somewhere along the line I learned to practice putting myself in the shoes of those who would hurt me or make me their enemy. I usually need to let the hurt subside first, but when it has I can ask, “Why would they do this thing to me? What suffering must they be enduring that leads them to act in this manner?” Then I remember that everyone wishes to be free of suffering, friends and foes alike, and I pray that they will be free of suffering.

Sometimes I can manage to say those prayers with the sincerity of someone praying for a loved one or dear friend. Other times it takes a little more time, a little more distance from the pain. But once I pray sincerely for them, the hurt and anger melt away, and all that’s left is compassion.

How Do People Perceive Me?

“I don’t really care how I am remembered as long as I bring happiness and joy to people.” ~ Eddie Albert

I can be really hung up on how people view me now, as well what kind of mark on will leave on the world when I inevitably pass from this life. It amazes me that I still sometimes hesitate to do what is right because of thoughts about what “people” will think. Family, friends, coworkers, people… I wouldn’t know if I tripped over them – dear lord, what will they think? [insert dramatic shudder here]

In retrospect, it makes me laugh. There really should be some LOLs here. It seems so silly. Why should I care what it says on my tombstone? I’ll be dead. But in that moment, it still brings me up short. I think it’s right to take seriously what kind of world I leave behind, but not because of how I’ll be remembered for it. Because I believe it is my responsibility to leave behind as much love as I found when I entered it, and hopefully more.

Some Things I Hope We Can Agree On

“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God.” – Thomas Jefferson

God, deity, higher power, energy, universal interconnectedness, angels, protectors, anti-gremlins (okay, I made that one up) – it doesn’t matter to me what you call it. Or if you don’t call it anything. Or if you don’t even believe in “it.” I don’t care, because I believe we don’t need any particular religion to connect and to agree on a few things:

1. We respect and care for others and ourselves
2. We show love and compassion to all
3. We seek to be happy, free from suffering
4. We are committed to growing ethically, spiritually, emotionally, etc.

I’m certain the list could be longer. But if you and I can agree on just one of those, that’s a great place to start building a friendship. I’d like to think that I could build such a friendship with each and every one of you.