mindfulness practice

Balancing

By Peggy Denial For about a year, my husband and I were involved with our son's biological family in a major legal battle over adoption, custody, and other aspects of Matthew's daily life. After living in six different homes, Matthew moved in with us almost five years ago. His maternal grandparents, who rarely visited him, had most of the legal control over his life.

In these circumstances, I've been more dependent on practice, while at the same time, it has been more difficult for me to practice. I had to return to the most elementary practices, especially when my fear of Matthew's being taken away was highest. While meditating, I could follow my breathing using the words "in" and "out," but not a more complex gatha. Some days all I could do was recite the three refuges, and I needed to recite them almost all day long to keep a minimum of calm in my life. I did almost no work. I wasn't able to write. I had difficulty seeing other people.

Almost every day, it seemed as if the practice was not working. The pain did not go away. I stayed calm as long as I kept my focus on practice, but once I let my mind wander, I immediately lost my calm. I thought about Sister Chan Khong's recommendation in her book, Learning True Love, to stay mindful of each task. I tried to be aware of what I was doing. "I am chopping vegetables." "I am washing dishes." "I am putting my son to bed." I was deeply aware that Matthew was with us now, and I tried to stay mindful of that fact in the present moment. But the moment also included the court battle, and I was deeply afraid. Each day I'd alternate between feeling that this practice does not work and feeling that I don't do it right. Yet each day I returned to mindfulness. I had nothing else to lean on. My husband encouraged me, and I reminded myself that practice has always worked in the past.

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I see now that the practice was working all along It was keeping me calm and present. A lot of the time, the present moment was very difficult. It wasn't that I wasn't present; I just didn't like it. However, by staying calm and present those many months, I was able to practice Right Speech and Right Action so as not to make a bad situation worse. I was also able to seize an opportunity to change the situation.

After one court session, I saw an opportunity to meet Matthew's birthmother, Linda. I had to make a split-second decision. Because of my daily practice, I saw the opportunity and knew how to use it. We had been kept away from Linda by her parents, and I was unaware of how much she wanted to talk to me. When he was three, Matthew was taken from her because of criminal abuse and neglect. She had not taken advantage of her right to visit him in seven years. For about forty minutes, I was able to listen deeply to Linda. And I held her for a long time after that. I was able to let her know that I did not judge her for what she did to Matthew. 1 was able to assure her that we would take care of him, and to let her know how deeply grateful we are to her for bringing him into the world. Without the practices of deep listening, deep looking, and deep holding, I could not have been there with her. And I could not have helped her turn this situation around.

Two weeks later we met in court again. Linda told the judge that she no longer wanted to fight the situation. She said that she had been very angry, thinking that we were taking Matthew from her, but now she understood that this was in Matthew's best interest. She talked about her love for him and the deep pain in her life. She said she understands that Matthew wants to be adopted and that she wants to be able to give this to him. Later, I told Matthew what she had said. Now he feels differently about her. In time, when they meet again, it will be possible for them to heal their wounds.

Peggy Denial, True Spiritual Wonder, practices with her family and the Sonoma County Sangha in northern California.

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Media Reviews

mb54-BookReviews1Who Am I in This Picture? Amherst College Portraits With Brett Cook and Wendy Ewald Amherst College Press, 2009 Soft cover, 96 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

Who Am I in This Picture? documents a community art project conducted by Sangha member and artist Brett Cook and photographer Wendy Ewald at Amherst College in 2007 and 2008. The college was the setting for a massive experiment in cultivating new forms of knowledge and consciousness through portraits and interviews with staff, faculty, and students. The book follows Cook and Ewald’s intimate work with eighteen members of the college community in contemplative, educational, and creative exercises that focused on learning. The project acted as a multicultural process of community building and resulted in six 12-foot by 30-foot portrait triptychs mounted across the Amherst College campus, as well as an exhibition at the Mead Art Museum.

The artworks themselves—each of which portrays a student, staff member, and faculty member—were generated by Ewald and Cook, with participation from students in Ewald’s seminar “The Practice of Collaborative Art,” members of the campus and western Massachusetts communities, and the subjects of the portraits. The six triptychs combine photographs, painting, and words in striking ways. The fact that the artworks were made by thousands of participants endows the pieces with great power. Each portrait is a reflection of the community, not unlike a Sangha. As our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would say, “The one contains the all, and the all contains the one.”

In a spirit of inquiry, the subjects of the portraits reflected on questions that they themselves generated about being a part of the Amherst College community. The questions are very thought-provoking: What does the term “learning” mean to you? How has your life journey helped you to determine what learning means? Who/what has been your most influential teacher? Is it possible to learn everything about yourself? Does being educated make you happier? Do different cultures learn differently? How should a teacher define success? This is a mere sample of the questions posed by this project. As I reflected on these questions and the stories of the portrait subjects, memories of my own experiences at college arose. I also contemplated some of these questions in relationship to my experience as a member of the Sangha and the Order of Interbeing.

I appreciated the sentences that each subject wrote by hand on his or her own portrait. After reflecting on the questions above and many others, each person came up with a phrase that encapsulated his or her experience or understanding and wrote this on his or her portrait in big letters. Some of the sentences read: “You can’t be invisible or you will miss out.” “I feel the loneliest when I am not learning anything.” “I use people’s names so they know that they matter.” “I feel like I was taught to learn by listening.” “I am so much the people who are around me.” “It’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.” “Am I any different from the guy around the corner who knows everything about a ’67 Bonneville?” “When people aren’t educated, they can’t hold their governments accountable.”

The book beautifully documents the project from start to fi with lovely photographs and fascinating interviews with the artists and members of the community. I feel very inspired by the community building that took place at Amherst through this contemplative project.

mb54-BookReviews2Child’s Mind How Mindfulness Can Help Our Children Be More Focused, Calm and Relaxed

By Christopher Willard Parallax Press, 2010 Softcover 128 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Did you know the words meditation and medicine are derived from the same Sanskrit word for “inner measure”? This is a pivotal gem from Parallax’s new book on mindfulness for kids. Indeed, mindfulness practice is good medicine—for both young and old.

A great resource book for teachers, doctors, mindfulness practitioners, therapists, parents, grandparents, and all who work with the young, Child’s Mind is chock full of ideas and sensory exercises for centering children in the Here and the Now. Beginning with the premise that children are the embodiment of beginner’s mind and therefore a fertile field, Willard lays out exercises for “child-sized attention spans and the diverse sensory learning styles of children.” Backed by solid and extensive research, the author builds a case for the advantages of meditation in general, and then tells how meditation specifically benefits children and other humans. Among other perquisites, Willard notes, mindfulness strengthens one’s ability to adapt, increases concentration, and reduces reactivity.

“Because the purest water flows from closest to the spring, I try to use original meditation techniques that have been well-practiced through the years. These include adaptations of grown-up practices from respected meditation teachers East and West that I have integrated with contemporary research.”

Citing world experts like Jack Kornfield, Sigmund Freud, John Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, and one of my personal favorites for children, Maureen Murdock (Spinning Inward), the author begins with the premise that an adult who practices mindfulness is capable of passing the skill to children. He offers a definition of and introduction to mindfulness, methods adults can employ to establish their own practice, and methods for teaching meditation and mindfulness to kids.

Part II of the book offers Meditations for Mental and Emotional Well-Being, to transform or calm the effects of depression, anxiety, psychological trauma, impulse control, and the autism spectrum in children. Subsequent chapters deal with specific childhood issues such as sleep deprivation and test anxiety. Part III provides resources and program ideas. The book ends with a comprehensive bibliography.

I am reminded of a tender time a few years after the 1989 revolution in Romania, when my husband Philip and I introduced the mindfulness bell to a group of orphans we were teaching there. One morning, a fifteen-year-old girl came to class with bandaged arms because she had used an open tin can to slit her wrists. The other children, mostly teens, were visibly upset. The room felt chaotic. We called for a translator, and in the ensuing confusion, Olivia, a lame young woman, limped to the front of the room, gingerly picked up the mindfulness bell in her shriveled hand and invited the bell. The sound calmed us all.

Here is the medicine of mindfulness—the rich offerings of Child’s Mind, a handbook that holds no less potential than the children of the world.

mb54-BookReviews3jpgTogether We Are One Honoring Our Diversity, Celebrating Our Connection

By Thich Nhat Hanh Available June 2010 Parallax Press

Together We Are One offers profound and socially relevant teachings from retreats for people of color with Thich Nhat Hanh and the Sangha. This new book is a distillation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s talks, interwoven with personal stories from a diverse group of participants of color. Addressed are such questions as:

  • How can we find our true home and feel we belong, whoever and wherever we are?
  • What are the different experiences of people of color in our Sanghas?
  • How can we and our Sanghas welcome and embrace more diversity?
  • How can we apply Buddhist insights to help heal the suffering of separation, discrimination and prejudice?

If you are interested in relating with more wholeness and celebration to all aspects of your identity, and making the treasures of your ancestors more available to you and your descendants, this book is for you. It includes original drawings, poetry, and a new and expanded version of Touching the Earth to our Land Ancestors, created during the people of color retreats.

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Book Reviews

mb58-BookReviews1ReconciliationHealing the Inner Child

By Thich Nhat Hanh Parallax Press, 2010 174 pages

Reviewed by Zachiah Murray and Natascha Bruckner

If the Buddha arrived at full enlightenment it’s because he suffered a lot. – Thich Nhat Hanh

In this simple, clear, and practical book, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us to use mindfulness to overcome the mind and its suffering. He describes the Asian bitter melon, a vegetable with medicinal qualities, and explains, “Chinese medicine believes that bitterness is good for your health.” Likewise, our suffering is good for us; when we embrace it, we cultivate compassion.

Thay suggests that we turn toward our inner child to embrace our own suffering and become fully present. He offers four practices we can do with our inner child: talk, walk, write, and invite. First, we talk with our inner child—even out loud. Second, we practice walking meditation with the child within. Third, we listen to what our inner child has to say, and write it down. We might also write a letter to our inner five-year-old. Last, we invite our inner child into the present moment, to experience the wonders of life here and now.

Thay defines reconciliation as “leaving behind our dualistic view and our tendency to punish. It opposes all forms of ambition but doesn’t take sides.” Once we’ve reached reconciliation within ourselves, we’re able to reconcile with others. With the insight of interbeing, we know that just as a kernel of corn is in a corn stalk, our mother is alive in us. Therefore, when we reconcile with our own inner child, we also make peace with our ancestors.

In Part Two, four Sangha sisters and brothers—Lillian Alnev, Joanne Friday, Glen Schneider, and Elmar Vogt—share deeply personal stories about turning toward the inner child. These beautiful stories are real-life applications of the practice of embracing suffering; they show us that the inner child is always there and can never be taken away. Part Three is a collection of seven lovely practices to connect with the inner child, including the Five Earth Touchings and a sample letter to one’s inner child. “Without suffering, without understanding our suffering, true happiness is not possible,” Thay explains. This book is a wonderful guide to embracing our suffering, our inner child, and our world.

mb58-BookReviews2Mindfulness and the 12 Steps Living Recovery in the Present Moment

By Therese Jacobs- Stewart Hazelden, 2010 Paperback, 181 pages

Reviewed by Peter Kuhn

The Twelve Step model of Alcoholics Anonymous has helped millions of people find freedom from a wide range of afflictions. The principles of the Twelve Steps are spiritual, rather than religious, in nature, and present a simple course of action for complicated people. The “program,” as it is commonly known, has been embraced globally and practiced by people of all religions and social classes.

In Mindfulness and the 12 Steps: Living Recovery in the Present Moment, Therese Jacobs-Stewart shines the light of mindfulness on the Twelve Steps and eloquently presents a view of them from a Buddhist perspective. With a mix of personal history, stories from Buddhist teachers, and refections from her regular Twelve Step Mindfulness Group meetings, she beautifully shows how the Dharma and the Steps inter-are. She writes, “The traditions of mindfulness and Alcoholics Anonymous have a similar view as to the source of our suffering: Bill W. called it ‘self-will run riot,’ while the Buddha described it as a delusion of separateness from others. Both agree that our suffering contains the seeds of our liberation. And, we can learn to live with serenity in any set of circumstances.”

Writing from direct experience in a clear, personal voice, Jacobs-Stewart infuses her book with the lightness and healing energy that characterize mindfulness practice. She looks deeply at each of the Twelve Steps, offering insight and clarity from her study of the Dharma, and guidance toward the practical application of the Steps in daily life. Mindfulness exercises are presented at the conclusion of each chapter. The Twelfth Step states: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs.” This is a powerful bodhisattva vow, and in this book Therese Jacobs-Stewart honors it with understanding and love.

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