Meditation and mindfulness practice doesn't begin or end on the cushion or chair, it is meant to be practiced in many different situations and locations. One of the best ways to help bridge sitting meditation with daily life meditation is in cultivating skills in awareness. We need to know how to pay attention to what we are doing while we are doing it. Below are a series of exercises to help do just this.
Choose one or two of these exercises and practice them daily for three weeks (21 days). Then, after the three weeks, choose another one or two and practice them for three weeks, and so on. Keeping a journal as you practice these exercises will be very revealing and helpful to your development. Remember to have fun with this! Avoid making it work, but rather let it be a discovery:
Exercise 1: Ask yourself “What is happening right now?” — at least once (preferably twice) a day, practice focusing on the moment, just as it is occurring. Each time we do this practice, it will be entirely different. When we start learning how to pay attention we will notice that every moment offers new sensations and new levels of awareness. You will discover this for yourself as you begin to bring your attention fully to this exercise.
Exercise 2: Stop and ask “What am I doing right now?” — Several times a day (at least three), stop whatever you are doing and ask yourself the question: What am I doing right now? Notice how your mind responds and then separate the observation of WHAT you are doing from any thoughts, feelings, judgements ABOUT what you are doing. Allow yourself to set aside any such thoughts and judgements and focus on describing as concisely as you can on WHAT you are doing right that moment. Choose an activity or signal that you can use to remind you to practice, such as: for a few seconds every hour; every time you eat; every time you move from room to room or location to location, etc. As you practice, you will begin to notice a shift in the patterns of your internal response. Make note of those patterns. Let go of any judgements about how well you are doing the exercise. Just notice.
Exercise 3: Stop and See — Several times a day, stop whatever you are doing and look around you for one minute. Really take in what you are seeing—objects, colors, movements, light, shadow, etc. Then pretend you are describing what you are seeing to someone who has never seen before. Observe for the full minute, and notice the thoughts that arise shortly after you begin. Keep this up for the entire minute! This exercise helps us to strengthen our awareness capacity.
Exercise 4: Stop and Listen — Several times a day, stop whatever you are doing and listen for one full minute. Listen to any far away sounds, nearby sounds, sounds outside, sounds inside, etc. Describe or identify the sounds as though you are communicating to someone who has never heard. Be sure to keep this practice up for the full minute.
Exercise 5: Stop and Feel — Several times a day, stop whatever you are doing and for one minute, pay attention to what your body is feeling. Notice the external feelings, the air movement, the temperature, clothing against your skin, the points of contact your body makes with the floor, ground, chair, or whatever is supporting your body. Notice any internal sensations, discomfort, pain, tension, numbness, pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations, even areas of no sensation at all. Notice how these sensations move and change even as you pay attention to them. Let the sensations come and go, as well as any thoughts or judgements that might arise in response. Maintain this focus for the full minute.
With the passing of Thanksgiving, we are entering into the busy holiday season. As we add to our already busy schedules preparations for holiday gatherings, we find stress levels going up. As the stress goes up, we tend to let our meditation practice slide, telling ourselves that we will get back to it when it is more convenient. However, letting our practice slip doesn't help us deal with the increasing stress levels.
Often, we turn to an unrestrained desire for stimulation to cope. Our consumer culture is built upon a desire for stimulation. This constant chasing after stimulation increases our stress levels. A regular meditation practice helps bring into awareness our underlying attachments to stimulation, which helps to keep it in check. This holiday season, it is in our best interests to keep up our meditation practice and watch out for our tendency to look toward external stimulation as a way to keep us busy, when we would do better to take some time for quiet and stillness. The stress and pressures of the holidays will make it more difficult for us to sit and find quiet. When we do actually sit to practice, we might find our extra busyness creating more challenge to our regular practice due to all the extra stimulation that comes with the season.
Here are some suggestions for helping to manage our desire for stimulation:
As we begin to enter the holiday season, amid the pressures and stress that come with it, please remember that attention, compassion and gratitude toward yourself and others is the greatest gift you can give above all others.
Wishing Others Well or practicing WOW, is a terrific way to get in touch with gratitude, especially when it seems the furthest from our mind. Wish everything you encounter that it is well and at peace. I say everything! That means giving thans to the rock in your shoe, the person that cuts you off in traffic, the deer that eats your shrubs, the pot hole-filled road you travel on, the clunky car you drive, the ranting boss, as well as, the mail person that delivers your mail, the cashier at the store, the laughter of children, etc.
Offer everyone and everything well wishes and really let go of anything else you might be holding onto. If you do, you might just find that not only do you give a gift to others but you yourself may experience the gift of gratitude emerging from your very own heart.
by Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD
Over the last thirty years I’ve had a wealth of experience speaking NVC [nonviolent communication] with people who harbor strong beliefs about specific races and ethnic groups. Early one morning I was picked up by a cab at an airport to take me into town. A message from the dispatcher came over the loud speaker for the cabbie: “Pick up Mr. Fishman at the synagogue on Main Street.” The man next to me in the cab muttered, “These kikes get up early in the morning so they can screw everybody out of their money.”
For twenty seconds, there was smoke coming out of my ears. In earlier years, my first reaction would have been to want to physically hurt such a person. Now I took a few deep breaths and then gave myself some empathy for the hurt, fear, and rage that were stirring inside me. I attended to my feelings. I stayed conscious that my anger wasn’t coming from my fellow passenger nor the statement he had just made. His comment triggered off a volcano inside of me, but I knew that my anger and profound fear came from a far deeper source than those words he had just uttered. I sat back and simply allowed the violent thoughts to play themselves out. I even enjoyed the image of actually grabbing his head and smashing it.
Giving myself this empathy enabled me to then focus my attention on the humanness behind his message, after which the first words out of my mouth were, “Are you feeling…?” I tried to empathize with him, to hear his pain. Why? Because I wanted to see the beauty in him and for him to fully apprehend what I had experienced when he made his remark. I knew I wouldn’t receive that kind of understanding if there were a storm brewing inside of him. My intention was to connect with him and to show a respectful empathy for the life energy in him that was behind the comment. My experience told me that if I were able to empathize, then he would be able to hear me in return. It would not be easy, but he would be able to.
“Are you feeling frustrated?” I asked. “It appears that you might have had some bad experiences with Jewish people.”
He eyed me for a moment, “Yeah! These people are disgusting, they’ll do anything for money.”
“You feel distrust and the need to protect yourself when you’re involved in financial affairs with them?”
“That’s right! he exclaimed, continuing to release more judgments, as I listened for the feeling and need behind each one. When we settle our attention on other people’s feelings and needs, we experience our common humanity. When I hear that he’s scared and wants to protect himself, I recognize how I also have a need to protect myself and I to know what it’s like to be scared. When my consciousness is focused on another human being’s feelings and needs, I see the universality of our experience. I had a major conflict with what went on in his head, but I’ve learned that I enjoy human beings more if I don’t hear what they think. Especially with folks who have his kind of thoughts, I’ve learned to savor life much more by only hearing what’s going on in their hearts and not getting caught up with the stuff in their heads.
This man kept on pouring out his sadness and frustration. Before I knew it, he’d finished with Jews and moved on to Blacks. He was charged with pain around a number of subjects. After nearly ten minutes of my just listening, he stopped: he had felt understood.
Then I let him know what was going on in me:
MBR [Marshall B. Rosenberg]: “You know, when you first started to talk, I felt a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, sadness and discouragement, because I’ve had very different experiences with Jews than you’ve had, and I was wanting you to have much more the kind of experiences I’ve had. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”
Man: “Oh, I’m not saying they’re all…”
MBR: “Excuse me, hold on, hold it. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”
Man: “What are you talking about?”
MBR: “Let me repeat what I’m trying to say. I really want you to just hear the pain I felt when I heard your words. It’s really important to me that you hear that. I was saying I felt a real sense of sadness because my experiences with Jewish people have been very different. I was just wishing that you had had some experiences that were different from the ones you were describing. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”
Man: “You’re saying I have no right to talk the way I did.”
MBR: “No, I would like to you to hear me differently.I really don’t want to blame you. I have no desire to blame you.”
I intended to slow down the conversation, because in my experience, to whatever degree people hear blame, they have failed to hear our pain. If this man said, “Those were terrible things for me to say; those were racist remarks I made,” he would not have heard my pain. As soon as people think that they have done something wrong, they will not be fully apprehending our pain.
I didn’t want him to hear blame, because I wanted him to know what had gone on in my heart when he uttered his remark. Blaming is easy. People are used to hearing blame; sometimes they agree with it and hate themselves—which doesn’t stop them from behaving the same way—and sometimes they hate us for calling them racists or whatever—which also doesn’t stop their behavior. If we sense blame entering their mind, as I did in the cab, we may need to slow down, go back and hear their pain for a while more.
Nonviolent Communication: a language of life
Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD
Puddle Dancer Press
Encinitas, CA © 2003
There was a monk, known as Hakuin, who lived on the edge of a small town, much to the delight of the townspeople. Whenever he ventured into town to help someone, everyone came out of their homes to give him gifts from their gardens, calling out to him, “Oh, Teacher, we’re so fortunate to have you living nearby! You are such a wonderful person! You do so much good, Teacher! Your presence is such a blessing!”
To all of this, the monk would always reply, “Is that so? Is that so?”
One day a young woman came to the monk’s hut and said, “Oh, Teacher, I’m in terrible trouble. I’m pregnant and my family will disown me. The young man who I love so much has fled to another town because my family would certainly do him harm. I have nowhere else to turn and no one else to ask for help.”
The monk replied that she could live in the back room and help around the house and she would then have the security of a home for her child.
Well, now when the monk went into town, he was reviled. “You dirty old man! Look how you have betrayed our trust and taken advantage of that young woman! How could we have ever believed in you? What shame you have brought on us!” And they hurled rotten fruit at him along with their insults.
To all of this, the monk would always reply, “Is that so? Is that so?”
After a while, the father of the child returned to the town and presented himself before the family, saying, “I have spent the past two years learning a trade in a neighboring town and now I am able to provide a home for your daughter and grandchild.” The family was overjoyed. Although it wasn’t the best of situations, it was so much better than they had feared that they welcomed their daughter and grandchild back into the family with open arms.
How different it was when the monk came into town then. The townspeople lined the road every time, presenting him with gifts of food and calling out, “Oh, Teacher, how could we have ever doubted you? Look at the wonderful thing you have done! We are so ashamed! Please forgive us! You are such a wise and compassionate person! We are so fortunate to have you living nearby!”
To all of this, the monk would always reply, “Is that so? Is that so?”
Inner peace comes when we can respond to success and failure, praise and criticism in the same unattached way. Whether in public or the workplace or in the privacy of home life, people will misread our intentions and jump to conclusions that cast us in a bad light. Shallow praise or criticism ought not pull us off-cente. Hakuin reminds us to maintain emotional detachment from the ever changing opinions of others while never withdrawing from personal involvement with others’ real needs. Hakuin did not allow the unexpected arrival of the young woman to disturb his inner peace and contentment. True joy does not depend on the opinions of others.
Great Master Wonhyo was born in 617 CE, about 1300 years ago. He was a pioneer, not only in Korean Buddhist thought, but also in philosophical thought. His contribution to Korean Buddhism and philosophy is still felt and admired to this day.
In 661 CE, there was a famous monk named Wonhyo in Korea. Wonhyo believed he would become a better monk if he went to Tang China to learn more knowledge about Buddhism from the great Chinese masters. He and his friend, a fellow monk named Uisang, embarked on a long journey to China.
They journeyed westward on foot and by the time they had reached the harbor of Tanghang castle, darkness had fallen. They faced strong winds and very heavy rain, so they took shelter in a safe looking cave and decided to stay one night inside.
Wonhyo woke up in the middle of the night feeling very thirsty. He groped in the darkness for some water to drink. His hands fell upon what felt like a drinking gourd. He picked it up and felt water inside. He tasted it and it was very sweet. He drank the remaining water in one big gulp. The water was cool and refreshing, and it quenched his thirst. He went back to sleep and rested well until morning.
Early the next morning, Wonhyo and Uiang woke up and were alarmed to see human skulls and bones scattered around them. The shelter they had spent one night in was not a cave but an old burial chamber. Wonhyo remembered what had occured during the night and began to look for the drinking gourd. The gourd was nowhere to be found. He realized that he drank from one of the skulls and the fresh water that quenched his thirst was actually some stagnant water that had collected in a skull. He examined the inside of one of the skulls and saw the cloudy water was writhing with maggots. The moment he saw this, he threw up, and he awakened.
Wonhyo realized that all phenomena is a result of discrimination within the mind, nothing else. He said to Uisang:
"Last night I was suffering from thirst and drank from what I thought was a drinking gourd. When I awoke this morning. I saw it was not clean water that I drank, but putrid water inside a human skull. When I drank the water, it was refreshing and tasty, and I slept peacefully afterwards. This morning when I saw what it was I really drank from, I felt sick and vomited. The impurity or purity of an object doesn't reside in the object itself, but exists within the discriminating mind. Now, I have realized that everything is created by the mind. Because I have realized this Truth, I cannot suppress my joy, nor the wish to dance and sing!"
Once In ancient China, a young prince of a particular region was about to be crowned emperor; however, according to law, he first had to be married. Since this meant choosing the future empress, the prince needed to find a young woman whom he could trust absolutely. On the advice of his mother, the current empress, he decided to summon all the young women of the region in order to find the most worthy candidate.
A servant woman, who had worked in the palace for many years, heard about the preparations for the gathering and felt sadness. The servant woman knew that her daughter had nurtured a secret love for the prince, from the very first time they met and played together as little children .
When the servant woman got home, she found her daughter where she usually was, in the garden, and gently told her daughter about the gathering and was horrified to learn that her daughter intended on going to the palace.
The servant woman was desperate: “But, daughter, what on earth will you do there? All the richest and most beautiful girls from the court will be present. Don’t be ridiculous! We do not have the clothing or jewels to compete with their finery. I know you must be suffering, but, please, don’t turn that suffering into madness!"
The daughter replied: "My dear mother, I am not suffering and I haven’t gone mad. It’s my last chance to spend at least a few moments close to the prince before he becomes emperor, and that makes me happy, even as I know that he will not choose me to be his wife. I will continue my days with my garden and nurturing my plants.”
That night, when the young woman reached the palace, all the most beautiful young ladies were indeed there, wearing the most beautiful clothes and the most beautiful jewelry, and each vying in their own way for the prince’s favor.”
Surrounded by the members of his court, the empress, who was known for her wisdom and compassion, stepped forward and announced a challenge: “I will give each of you a seed. In six months’ time, the young woman who brings me the loveliest flower will be the future empress of China.”
Each of the young woman were given a pot with soil and a single seed. The servant woman’s daughter stepped forward, pleased. While she was not skilled in book learning or the customs of the court, she was confident in her skills in gardening. She brought the pot with the soil and seed home and offered it all the love and tender care that she gave to the plants in her garden. She believed that if she truly loved the seed as she loved the prince the flower would indeed be the most lovely.”
Three months passed and no shoots had appeared. The young woman tried everything; she added nutrients to the soil, she varied the length and intensity of sunshine on the soil, but still no shoot emerged. She consulted farmers and other peasants, who showed her the most varied methods of cultivation, but all to no avail. She prayed and chanted over the pot every morning and evening, hoping the focused energy might help the seed. Each day the sprout didn’t appear, she felt her dream slipping away, but she didn’t let this change her love for this seed. In fact, as the months went by, she worried less about becoming empress and more about the seed that didn’t grow.
Finally, the six months were up, and still nothing had grown in her pot. She entertained thoughts of transferring one of the flowers from her garden and putting it into the pot. She had so many stunningly beautiful flowers. Would it be a falsehood if I did so? After all, the flowers were grown by her own hands. She brought the barren pot to her garden to select the best of her flowers.
The young woman’s mother saw her daughter in the garden with the royal pot and grew concerned. She spoke then to her daughter: “You are not considering deceiving the empress?”
“How can I bring an empty pot to the court? If I choose one of the flowers I grew myself, would it be deceptive?”
“But it would not be the seed you were given. I watched you over these many months. You gave all your effort and love to that little seed. I saw you worry over it, seek the help of others. You even chanted and offered prayers for that seed. You put all that you could into that little pot. I believe that is what you should bring to the empress. Don’t you?”.
The servant woman’s daughter nodded. Even though she had nothing to show, she knew how much effort and dedication she had put in during that time, and so she told her mother that she would bring the empty pot back to the palace on the agreed date and at the agreed hour. This would indeed be the very last time she would be able to meet her true love and she would not want to miss that opportunity. Empty pot or not.
The day of the audience arrived. The servant woman’s daughter appeared with her barren pot. All around her were the other candidates each of whom had achieved wonderful results: each pot bore a flower taller and lovelier than the last, in the most varied shapes and colors. The other young woman stared at her and her empty pot, some tried to be polite and stifle laughter, others had no care for being polite and threw insults as she walked by. The servant woman’s daughter felt her face redden and she began to doubt her wisdom at coming.
Finally, the longed-for moment came. The empress and the prince entered the court, and they both studied each of the candidates with great care and attention. When they came to the servant woman’s daughter, they looked carefully at the empty pot, then looked at each other with a surprised look. The young woman could only hang her head in embarrassment, her heart pounding in her chest.
“I am so sorry to present this empty pot.” the young woman said, trying valiantly to speak with confidence, “I did all I could to get the seed to sprout. I watered it; fertilized it, gave it sun and shade; I even changed the soil. When that didn’t work, I asked for help from the farmers; and when that didn’t work, I prayed and chanted for this seed to sprout. I tried my best, so that is what I present to you. I hope you will accept my efforts.”
She lifted her gaze enough to see that the empresses’s countenance was firm and impassive. The prince appeared to be struggling to keep a calm appearance. She lowered her gaze again.
The empress and the prince returned to the dais and conferred quietly with each other, but very briefly. Then the empress stepped forward and announced that the prince would marry the servant woman’s daughter.
Immediately there was a clamor in the hall as all the young ladies and their chaperones protested. They began shouting all at once:
“How could she be chosen?”
“She was the only one with an empty pot! She didn’t fulfill the terms of the contest.”
“What about my flower? It is clearly the most beautiful, I should be chosen!”
“Can’t you see how tall and brilliant my flower is? Please have another look and choose me!”
“Smell the fragrance of my flower, and you will realize I should be chosen!”.
The empress raised a hand and the hall fell into an uneasy silence. Then she calmly explained the reasoning behind the challenge: “While it is true that every one of these flowers is lovely and well grown. This young woman was the only one who cultivated the flower that made her worthy of becoming empress: the flower of honesty. None of the flowers presented here are grown from the seeds I handed out. You see, before I gave you all the seeds, I boiled them, rendering them sterile. Nothing could ever have grown from them. All but this young woman chose their aspiration to marry my son over the integrity to show their honest efforts. She alone, demonstrated the courage and honesty to present the true results of her efforts, an empty pot. With this empty pot, she alone, presents her true self to the court.”
The prince stepped forth and took the servant woman’s daughter’s hand and bowed low before her then said, softly, “I am pleased that you, of all the young ladies of the kingdom presented an empty pot. For I have secretly held in my heart, from the time we were children, a deep love for you.” Then standing tall, still holding her hand, he spoke loudly and clearly, “Let me present, Joy, our future empress.”
(Adapted from a story by Maria Emilia Voss)
We all hold a multitude of beliefs, ideas and opinions about our own lives, other people, ourselves, how the world works, responsibilities, the past, present and future, and so on.
A belief is a statement or doctrine that we have accepted or chosen to uphold as true. However, beliefs are not objective absolutes. They are often a result of choices made from a variety of possibilities. Some beliefs have been in our minds for so long that we don't even question them or even realize they are there in the first place. These beliefs have been places there by our parents, teachers, our culture, communities, religious leaders, the media, the government, scientific institutions, etc. These long held, deeply rooted beliefs are often unconscious and they inform how we perceive reality without our awareness.
Through meditation and mindfulness we can develop and deepen our awareness of who we are and how we feel by uncovering or exploring our unconscious beliefs. When we identify an unconscious belief we can then choose to keep it or replace that belief with one that better fits our experience of reality.
It is important that when exploring our beliefs, to pay attention to how we feel in the process. Sometimes it can be very uncomfortable or even feel threatening to challenge a deeply held belief. There is no need to power through or harshly rid oneself of a belief. Recognize the feeling of fear, anger, defensiveness and worry that arises. Acknowledge those feelings and allow yourself to question if there might be something to be learned at that moment. Enter this process with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Pause and start again when it feels necessary to do so. Keep in mind that we always have a choice to move forward, go back, or stop for a while.
Naming and owning our feelings—our emotional responses to what is happening around us—is key to experiencing natural joy. However, many of us do not know how to recognize the feelings we are experiencing, let alone, how to stay with them. There are three main challenges that we face when learning how to own our own feelings:
The first challenge: allow ourselves to acknowledge the existence of our feelings.
For many, death is an uncomfortable topic. While we many not share beliefs regarding what happens after the body dies, we can all agree on two things:
1. We will all experience death of the body.
2. We don't know when death will happen.
Because of these two facts, many of us spend a lot of energy trying to deny or avoid accepting them. Now we could spend a lot of time and energy contemplating the unknown, of what happens after the body dies. But in the end, all we are left with are ideas and beliefs. Instead, we could decide to make the most of the life we know we have.
Ridding ourselves of the fear of death becomes a crucial step in connecting to our natural joy. That is because the fear of death underlies many of the other fears we may have: the fear of aging, the fear of losing identity, the fear of losing power, the fear of losing possessions, etc.
Rather than fearing the death of the body, some future event, we can allow ourselves to be comfortable with that truth and let go of many other fears. We can refocus our attention on what is here, right now, right before us and celebrate in the beauty and wonderment of the leaves dancing in the wind, the birds singing in the trees, the friend that sits beside you.
When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world
I am Do'an Prajna, a bhikṣu (fully ordained Zen Buddhist monk) and zen teacher. Here I share my thoughts and observations about living a life of compassion, attention and gratitude.