half-smile

The Energy of Love

By Anh-Huong Nguyen Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

When I invest all of my being into my breath, this exercise becomes a mantra. I entrust myself completely to my breathing, and I know I am safe. Mindful breathing is my anchor.

Many young people suffer because they don't know what to do in times of strong emotion. They need the anchor of their breath. A few weeks ago, I shared the technique of belly-breathing with a group of fifth-grade students. I told them to use it in times of strong emotions. They listened attentively and practiced very well. These young people need our help to enter the heart of the Buddha and learn to take refuge in their safe island of self. My family escaped from

Vietnam in a very small boat. None of us could swim. Before we left, my father tied eight floats on both sides of the boat. On the open sea, our boat was caught in a terrible storm. The boat engine stopped. I peeped out of the boat. The waves were so high, all I could see was water- no sky, no horizon, just water everywhere. If my father had not tied floats on the boat, we would all have been in the bellies of the fish. Mindful breathing is like the floats on our small boat. By holding onto our breathing, we are able to go safely through the storms of life.

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Allowing our body to relax is the key to enjoying our breathing. The breath is part of the body. When the body is at ease, breathing becomes natural and relaxed. Since conscious breathing is a bridge connecting body and mind, the breath is also part of the mind. When the breath is calm, it calms the mind. I like to see my breathing as a pillow on which I rest: "Breathing in, I am resting on the pillow of my in-breath. Breathing out, I am resting on the pillow of my out-breath."

The practice of mindful breathing is the practice of stopping. Someone asked when to stop. The answer is "now." There is such a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and suffering in each of us and in the world today it is important for us to learn and practice the skill of stopping. When we discover that we are running into an accident, our only wish is to be able to stop. And we can achieve stopping by holding onto our anchor of conscious breathing. Stopping helps us realize the absence of accident-the presence of safety and happiness. A half-smile is the fruit of that realization. Forgetfulness is the kind of energy that makes us run away from the present moment, and is the cause of many of our accidents. Missing our steps as we walk on earth is an accident. Missing the looks and the smiles of our beloved ones at the dinner table is another accident. The moment we come back to our breath, forgetfulness is being transformed into remembrance, mindfulness, happiness, and compassion.

The practice of conscious breathing is indeed the beginning of and the basis of the practice of love. The practice of a half-smile always goes with the practice of mindful breathing. A smile is both a means and an end. We smile to acknowledge and nurture the joy that is present, so that our joy may continue to grow. When happiness pervades our whole being, a half-smile blooms on our lips, in our eyes, and beneath our steps-without any effort. Several people have asked: "How can I smile when there is no joy in my heart?" The feeling of joy may not be present, but the seed of joy is there. It only needs to be touched and watered.

Mindful breathing helps us water the seeds of joy by connecting with the elements of joy within and around us: "Breathing in, I feel the blood flowing in my body. Breathing out, I am in touch with the sound of water trickling in the creek." Friends in the practice can help us touch our seed of joy. Our smile can also help us touch our seed of joy. We do not have to feel joy to smile. We smile to wake up the seed of joy sleeping in the soil of our mind. It may not seem too difficult to smile to others, yet it can feel strange to smile to ourselves. More than anyone, we deserve our smile. If we cannot smile to ourselves, something is in the way, preventing us from accepting and loving our self.

Suppose one winter day, we come home and the house is cold. We light the fireplace. After a while, the room becomes warm and comfortable. Our energy of mindfulness embraces our pain in the same way. The act of making a fire is born from an insight that the room is cold and the desire to warm the room. When we realize that we are suffocating in our pain, deep in our heart is born the desire to relieve our suffering. Our half-smile is the manifestation of that awakening and desire. Our half-smile is a breath of fresh air which brings immediate relief to our pain. It proves that we have compassion towards ourselves. Before the match is struck, the fire logs cannot produce wann air. Similarly, we must touch the seed of self-compassion for mindful breathing to produce the energy needed for transformation. Mindful breathing is the practice of compassion: "Breathing in, I smile to my in-breath. Breathing out, I smile to my whole body."

Holding onto our breathing is an art. It requires self-training and practice. By nurturing ourselves with the ease and joy of conscious breathing while strong emotions are not there, we will remember to return to our breath the moment strong emotions start to arise. If our instability is so great that we cannot hold onto and experience a sense of safety in our breath, one of the following methods can be used.

First, we can revive trust in ourselves and in the practice by recalling any feeling of peace and stability that was produced by our conscious breathing in the past. This can be done most easily when we are in an environment conducive to the practice, such as in a park or beside a river. The energy of trust helps us reconnect and entrust ourselves to our breath again. Second, we can ask for support from our Sangha brothers and sisters who are quite solid and loving. Their presence and their words bring us relief and enable us to taste the safety of our breath again. Third, we can allow ourselves to be embraced by a loving, supportive community that has the practice of peace, joy, stability, and compassion as its foundation. Breath is life. If we cannot experience the safety of conscious breathing and the joy of being alive, we are like wilted flowers. A practice community is good soil where each practitioner is trained to be a skillful gardener. Good soil and well-trained gardeners together can transform wilted flowers into fresh flowers. Taking refuge in the Sangha is to entrust ourselves completely to the practice and wisdom of the Sangha. The Sangha is the anchor. If the Sangha is a true Sangha, we will be able to experience the joy of conscious breathing in order to be healed and transformed.

In one retreat, a woman expressed feeling numb toward her breath. Belly-breathing did not work for her. It is true that when our mind and body become very tense, we may not be able to feel our breathing. I asked her to lie down and allow herself to be held tenderly in the arms of the Mother Earth as several imagery exercises were offered to help her relax. After 20 minutes, she began to feel her in-breath and her out-breath. Later in the retreat, as tears came to her eyes, she shared with friends her feeling of peacefulness with the practice of belly-breathing. This miracle could not have happened without a loving, supportive Sangha. It is autumn in Virginia. Each day, I receive many beautiful leaves from our five-year-old son, Bao-Tich.

Whenever he steps through the door, his face is as radiant as the leaf in his hands. Looking at Bao-Tich, I realize how happy he was to encounter the leaf, pick it up, bring it home, and offer it to me. For him, each autumn leaf is a true wonder. He encounters each leaf as if it is everything. He looks so happy and satisfied! Everyone was once a child like Bao-Tich. We were happy and satisfied with "little things" such as the leaves, the pebbles, the twigs, the acorns. We looked up at the sky and talked to the birds. Our smile shows our desire to revive that capacity. A smile is the rain and the sunshine. It has the power of liberating us from holding enmity toward ourselves and others. A smile can transform dry earth into fertile soil. Our smile seals us to the present moment.

A mindfulness practitioner is a love weaver. When we practice mindful breathing-whether sitting, standing, walking, or lying down--each breath is a thread woven into a cradle of love. Thanks to this cradle, we have a place to hold and nurture our joy, to hold and lullaby our pain. Transformations take place in this very cradle.

Dharma teacher Anh-Huong, Chan Y, facilitates the Mindfulness Practice Center in Fairfax, Virginia. She is the founder of The Committee for the Relief of Poor Children in Vietnam, which helps poverty-stricken children and orphans in Vietnam.

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Breathe!

by Sister Annabel Laity Before I came to Plum Village I had been practicing in India with the Tibetans, a meditation called tonglen. In this practice, when you breathe in, you take all the suffering of the world on yourself and when you breathe out, you breathe out all your joy for the sake of the world. I was ill while I was in India. When I first became sick, my teachers told me that it would be very good to meditate in order to breathe in all the suffering and breathe out all my joy. In fact, I did not have any joy to breathe out. However deeply I looked, I could not find it. Although this meditation helped me concentrate on my breathing and grow accustomed to bringing my mind back to my breath, the part about suffering and joy was not very useful. When I was well again, I met another teacher and explained my difficulty. He said, "Why do you bother to distinguish between suffering and joy? The two are the same." That put me in a little more difficult place, because I did not really understand what this meant.

When I came to Plum Village, Thay asked me, "What have you been practicing?" I said, "I've been trying to practice to see that suffering and joy are the same thing." Thay looked at me with compassion and said, "I think that you need to come back to yourself and nourish the joy in yourself. I do not think you have enough happiness to do that kind of meditation." Then every day, Thay would ask me, "Are you happy?" And I had to look deeply to see whether I was happy. I saw that if I can't say "yes," then I am not a very happy person. Although the seeds of happiness were in my consciousness, they had not been watered for a long time and therefore were not manifesting. Thay said, "Please do the kind of meditation that nourishes you, and when you are properly nourished with joy and happiness, you will be able to breathe out your joy and help other people." I had to do that kind of meditation for three or four years. I concentrated on nourishing the seeds of joy and happiness in myself. In my sitting and walking meditation, I could not breathe in all the suffering anymore, but I could breathe in the compassion of my teacher and myself for my own suffering. When I felt nourished by my teacher's compassion and my compassion for myself, I could breathe out joy.

I practiced mouth yoga diligently. Mouth yoga is the practice of the half smile. I made myself smile every half hour, whether there was anything to smile about or not. It was a revelation to me. Everything I thought was so important no longer seemed important at all. I lived in the practice center, and every day the practice center penetrated me imperceptibly, just as when you walk in the mist and imperceptibly your clothes become wet. Our habit energies of sadness and despair are strong and they do not vanish overnight. They gradually cease to manifest with so much strength, and they give more space to the seeds of joy.

One morning I sat on my bed to drink a cup of hot water. That is sitting meditation, because while you are sitting, you are mindful and concentrated. Outside you could still see the stars, but it was beginning to grow light. Unintentionally I began to experience my ignorance. I felt as if I were walking through veils of mist. As I passed through one veil, I encountered another. However I knew that the sun was there too, although I could not see it. Wisdom and ignorance were present together. I knew that awakening can happen at any moment, in any place. You only have to practice and awakening is there. Habit energies can be overcome now by the practice of being truly there in the present moment. At that moment I was awakened about my ignorance. I knew and felt my ignorance and wrong perceptions deeply. So awakening was not the absence of ignorance, but awareness of the nature of ignorance.


 

 

The sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness includes some exercises on mindfulness of the body. One exercise that helps us feel less lonely and cut off is the meditation on the four elements. In the Chinese version, there are six elements; in the Pali, there are four. Those elements are earth, water, fire, and air. (The Chinese version adds space and consciousness.) The Buddha says that all these elements are in your body; they are the basic constituents of your body. And you should meditate first to see those different elements supporting your body. Then, you meditate to see those four elements working to support life everywhere, not just your body. Gradually, you see the oneness of your own life and the life of everything around you, so that you are not afraid to die. You know that those elements which support this little body support all others' bodies and somehow, there isn't such a thing as death because the elements continue to support life anyway. This is a very beautiful meditation.

You begin by saying, "Breathing in, I see the earth element in me." Certain things in you are more solid than liquid—your bones, nails, tendons, excrement, flesh. Here you can see the earth element.

If you touch with your mindfulness everything in your body that is quite firm, then you are touching the earth element in you. And then, breathing out, "I smile to the earth element in me." Next, "Breathing in, I see the water element in me." And everything liquid in your body is the water element in you—your urine, your blood, your saliva, your perspiration. There is a lot of water in every part of your body. You are seventy percent water. And then, you see the water element outside of you—the rain, the sea—and you feel the oneness of all life.

You may decide, "Today I will just do the meditation on the earth element." And throughout the day, you are aware of the earth element in you and the earth element all around you. You base your concentration on the earth element for the whole day. Another day, you can meditate on the water element. When you're walking, you feel the water in your body and the water around you. Focusing on the air element, you see that the air in your body and the air outside are one. Of course the air is another thing which loves us and which is so essential for our lives. When we get caught up in worrying about unnecessary things, we can always look up and see that the air is there allowing us to breathe, and we know that there is nothing to worry about. Especially if we're in a beautiful place where the air is good, we can feel supported by the air outside of us as we feel it coming into our lungs.


If I were to write out of my experience the recipe for nourishing happiness, I should write:

To nourish happiness, smile often; walk and breathe in mindfulness many times every day in order to touch the present moment deeply; have a kind teacher and spiritual friends living with you or near you so that you can visit them often; read or listen to beautiful and meaningful teachings which you can put into practice straight away; and have the beauty of nature, its sights and sounds, penetrate you daily.

On October 4, 1999 Sister Annabel, True Virtue, was installed as Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma

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Bicycle Meditation

By David Percival  For most of us, the commute to and from work is a daily reality. I am fortunate to be able to bicycle to work, weather permitting, which in New Mexico is most of the time. Unfortunately, I think it is safe to describe the streets of most of our cities as not being bastions of mindfulness. Furthermore, most streets and roads have been designed for cars, not bicycles. You can be entering a battleground of inattentive, careless and sometimes hostile drivers, narrow roads full of holes and glass, and the occasional vicious dog. Yet, it is a joy to leave the car in the garage, enjoy the peace and cal m of an empty road in the early morning before the heat of the day takes over, go through a quiet neighborhood, and do your small part to lessen congestion and pollution.

First, plan ahead, especially if you have just started riding. Get a map and plot the safest, most direct route. Avoid, when possible, riding on major highways and busy main streets during the rush hour. Imagine trying to be mindful on a heavily traveled main street during the evening rush hour when you end up too close to cars parked on your right and vehicles are rushing by you on the left.

As you leave your house in the calm of a peaceful morning, understand that this situation could change in an instant. Leaving your driveway is an important time to be mindful of the present moment, to be aware of where you are and of your surroundings, and to focus on what you and others are doing this moment. As you get ready to leave, stop for a moment and take a few seconds to breathe. Concentrate on the task at hand: to get from your house to where you work happily and in one piece. Be aware that at any moment you may suddenly find yourself in a sea of unmindful drivers in large metal objects that could cause you harm.As in others situations, when you bicycle it is easy to be lost in your thoughts, worrying about the project you have to complete at work, or wondering if your children are safe at school. Be totally aware you are riding your bicycle, not thinking about home, work, or problems. Riding your bicycle is the most important thing in your life at that moment. Being mindful and in the present moment has never been more important.

You may think at first that the constantly changing pace of bicycling does not lend itself to mindfulness. It is frantic at times, when you are trying to wind your way through rush hour traffic, make it up that long hill you are unable to avoid, or wait for the traffic to clear so you can cross a busy street. Yet, like most things we do, bicycling is made up of a series of changing rhythms. And, as in sports or other aerobic activity, bicycling is a wonderful opportunity to observe and monitor your breathing. Indeed, bicycling is a working meditation, where your breath can be uncomfortably obvious at times, particularly when you reach the top of that long hill.

As you change gears, note the changing rhythm of your pedaling. Listen to the rhythm of the cracks in the road. Follow the rhythm of your heart as it talks to you. Note the ever changing rhythms as you proceed down the street, going slower, faster, stopping, starting, easing into traffic, moving out of the way of other vehicles. If your breath is fast on a hill, note that your breath is fast; when it slows down on a flat stretch, note that it is slower. With eyes wide open, concentrate on the constantly changing rhythms of your breathing. On your daily ride when your mind starts slipping away, keep coming back to the reality of the present moment. As thoughts come to mind, be aware of them, then let them go.

Events happen fast on roads and highways and often there is no time for reflection. You must react with an instant mindfulness.

Continue to bring yourself back to the present with your breathing, to your little moving space on a city street. Your awareness of your space and what is around you and what is just ahead is your protection. Be in complete awareness by watching the changing rhythms of your breath. Thay says in The Miracle of Mindfulness, "Keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise - this is mindfulness."

Make things that you see or hem" along the road be beacons of mindfulness: stoplights, stop signs, church bells, factory sirens, trains, buses, bus stops, familiar landmarks you see everyday such as parks, playgrounds, gardens, statues, towers, antennas, unusual buildings or special trees. Let them all be Buddhas, bells of mindfulness. Come back to your breath as you see these friends; smile as you go by.

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Often, you can't avoid crossing a busy street; you have to wait for traffic to clear and your movement is halted. Take a moment to rest, slow yourself down, observe the neighborhood, note your heartbeat, check on the rhythm of your breathing at the moment, breathe in and out and smile at the passing traffic, note the rhythm of the endless stream of passing cars, and then carefully move across the street when it is safe.

As you move along the streets of your city, continue to smile at passing cars and people in their yards. Smile and wave your thanks to drivers who allow you the right-of-way. Observe the unmindful, careless intensity of some drivers intent on getting somewhere at any cost. Smile compassionately at them and let them go.

Beware of the seeds of your anger. These seeds are in us and can sprout instantly, sometimes at the slightest infraction. Anger can grab us and throw us into a profoundly unmindful state and lead to distraction and forgetfulness. New riders, especially, have to learn not to cling to anger and frustration which can put us in danger. Anger while bicycling is often a knee-jerk reaction to an object on the road or another person's mindlessness and forgetfulness. I have found myself angry at a pothole, a puddle, a broken bottle, at other people's anger, and other equally insignificant things. I have driven for several city blocks with no recollection of doing so because of being taken over by my anger.

After many year of riding, I have trained myself to tum it all around, to let the potholes, the puddles, the broken bottles, the unmindful drivers, and the angry dogs be flashing beacons of mindfulness. These beacons transmit an instant message to me: let the feeling go and return to mindfulness. Remember, the driver that cut you off is gone; the pothole that jarred your brain is behind you; the obnoxious dog ran off. Let your negative angry thoughts do the same.

I have also found that keeping a half-smile on my face is of great importance. It is very difficult to be angry when I am smiling. Sometimes I do as Thay has suggested and make a contract with my pathway to ride mindfully the entire distance. Another way to stay mindful is to make up a gatha and recite it at regular intervals, such as: I am riding the path of mindfulness. I am riding the street of peace. I am riding the road of understanding.

Now when I ride, when seeds of anger or frustration do appear in my consciousness, through continuing practice they dissolve almost instantly and are gone. It is possible to immediately come back to myself.

Allow the rhythms of your breathing and your mindfulness to be your protection during your daily bicycle commute or any other time you are riding. And, by the way, wear a helmet, go with the traffic, follow the rules of the road, use lights at night, and keep a smile on your face.

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is a founding member of the Rainbow Sangha. He was ordained into the Order of Interbeing at the San Diego retreat in August.

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