workshops

Apple Meditation

Adam  Bernstein I lead a jazz department at a private school in Brooklyn, New York.  Our school is very overcrowded and the atmosphere is often tense. The students and faculty often speak of the tension and when an opportunity to slow down occurs, we all    benefit.

I have just begun my fifth year at the school and have always used mindfulness practice as a part of my teaching. Every year I’ve led meditation workshops for the students (grades 7 - 12) and many of them claim to enjoy it. They have interesting questions about spiritual life and they seem to be searching for a way to be more at home within themselves.

Recently I’ve begun to sound the bell in almost all my classes. I explain that this is a time to come back to ourselves, to relax and focus. I tell the students it is a time to enjoy doing nothing. That is a real surprise to them — I want them to do nothing! We breathe together for a few breaths and it never fails to settle all of us down. It’s very helpful to the spirit of the class and often there is a light humorous feeling. Many of the students think I’m a bit loony but I don’t mind. It’s true, I am.

Our school decided to have a Peace One Day assembly in solidarity with the program endorsed by the United Nations. I was asked to lead a short meditation so I decided to offer an apple eating meditation. We bought 600 organic Gala apples from the local food co-op. We really enjoyed washing them! We passed them out at the assembly and I spoke about mindful eating. The students and faculty were happy to be doing something so unusual and were very attentive to their apple. When I told them to take the first bite, a loud crunch sounded and all 600 of us began laughing. Everyone remembers that assembly to this day.

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I have much gratitude for the practice and feel genuine happiness sharing it with my students and co-workers.

Adam Bernstein, Radiant Joy of the Heart.

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Breathing Into Life and Death

An Interview with Rochelle Griffin

by Barbara Casey, at Plum Village, June 2002

Barbara: Rochelle, how did you come to live in Holland?

Rochelle: I was born and raised in the United States. During my first year of college my father became the director of the American International School in the Netherlands. So the next summer I went to Holland for vacation. I decided to stay a year, and then I never returned to the U.S. I was a very angry young woman, and I was particularly angry about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. I had many friends who had gone to Sweden or to Canada to avoid the draft, and I felt a lot of solidarity with them.

I was also scared, because in the United States they had shot students who were protesting the war at Kent State University. In Europe I had such a sense of solidity from the culture, from the cities and cathedrals that were a thousand years old. I liked Holland because it’s a very small country that has integrated many cultures and many religions, and I really appreciated that there were fifty-two political parties. It’s a socialist government and somehow the people are able to work together. There were a lot of anti-war demonstrations, and I had no fear when participating. I found work and friends in Holland. So I’m American by birth and Dutch by choice!

Barbara: Tell us a little about the work that you are doing now.

Rochelle: The story starts many years ago when I was in training to become a midwife. I was critically injured in a car accident in 1980, the only survivor of a front-on collision. I was in the hospital and rehabilitation for almost two years. There were a number of times that I didn’t think I was going to survive. I have a clear memory of a near-death experience that changed my outlook on what I perceived death and life to be. During this experience I was not attached to my body, and I had a deep experience of being pain free, of being surrounded by a sense of well-being, support, love, and life. I felt that I had a choice to go towards the light or to return to my body. I was able to bring back that deep awakening with me when I returned to consciousness. I had a real sense that I had work still to do on earth.

That experience helped me begin to learn to live with chronic pain. As I started to deal with chronic physical pain I realized I also carried a lot of chronic emotional pain. At this time I met Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who is a well-known Swiss-American psychiatrist and has done a lot of work dealing with the taboos around death and dying. I was her translator during a workshop called “Life, Death and Transition.” I felt very strongly that my new work would be helping people process their suffering. I spent much of the time between 1984 to 1988 in the United States and Europe, doing workshops and training with Elisabeth and her staff. Because of my accident and resulting handicaps, I received disability pay from the government. I did not want that kind of financial support, I wanted to be independent and self-supporting.  But in hindsight it’s been a blessing because it’s given me the freedom to develop the work I’m doing now.

In 1985 I started working primarily with people with HIV and AIDS in the Netherlands. I didn’t decide to work with these people in particular, but it was the group that was calling me and the door that opened. It was such an honor to be with people who had been afflicted with great suffering very young in life, and to witness their process of healing before they died. Their suffering included a great deal of stigmatization and misunderstanding and I have always felt an affinity to those issues.

In the beginning I worked primarily with gay men, but before long there were many people of mixed backgrounds including college students, middle aged women who were infected through their husbands, people using drugs intravenously, prostitutes, people in prisons, and people who had sex with someone who was infected. There were also children who were infected during birth and those who were orphans, because both parents were ill or had died of AIDS. Before there was any medication for treatment (AZT only became available in 1987,) I mostly worked with death and dying issues because people had an average life expectancy of only about thirteen months after diagnosis. Later as more medications became available, we were able to work through much of the pain and suffering at a deeper level through our Homecoming workshops, and to nourish the resulting peacefulness with mindfulness retreats.

In 1989 I set up my own foundation, called Fire Butterfly Foundation for Conscious Living and Dying. “The butterfly is a universal symbol of the soul freed from the confinement of the body. Fire stands for the accelerated transformation process which occurs when we’re confronted with our own impending death. People with a limited life expectancy can meet this challenge and increase the quality of their own lives and of those around them in a powerful and positive manner.” Rochelle Griffin

I feel that I have become a midwife in other phases of life, and am often a midwife for men too! My work has to do with finding out who we really are deep inside. In doing so we can discover that we’re really not as isolated and as alienated as we may have felt through our upbringing, that there is an energy in us that connects us as human beings to each other and to the universe. I wanted the groups to be mixed with young and old, gay and not-gay, men and women, and parents with children. Also caregivers would come to the workshop thinking it was going to be five days of lecture, but all this work is experiential, and that is what really helps to be a better caregiver. You can help others better when you understand that you’re not alone. When you’ve worked through your own feelings of anger, fear, grief, hopelessness, and helplessness, then you can be with others as they experience their own pain and suffering, without interrupting their process and without offering solutions. I don’t think that you can actually accompany people on this path futher than you have dared to go yourself. In trusting this process, we can tune into a different level of knowing what is best for us from inside out. And then we can trust that others will find their own way too, and we can be there for them, keep them safe, and encourage them to find their own answers.

In about 1982, a friend suggested that it might be helpful for me to learn to deal with my chronic physical pain by learning some form of meditation practice. I enrolled in a weekend retreat in a Christian abbey where Zen was practiced, and in that first weekend I discovered that instead of denying pain it was possible to go right into the heart of the pain and to sit in it. The pain transformed, and there came a great space where pain was present but it wasn’t only my pain, there was a sense of collective supportive energy. I also realized that my pain increased by resisting it and trying to deal with it alone. I practiced on this path for about fifteen years before I found Thay.

Barbara: Can you give us an example of some of the processes you offer in your Homecoming workshops?

Rochelle: People come to me when they find out they’re ill, usually. Or there are families, or healthcare givers, for instance, who are dealing with burn out. To prepare for a workshop, which is a very deep experience, we ask for a lot of medical information and we also do an extensive professional intake, so that we know who’s coming and if it’s appropriate for them to attend.

Usually the workshops have about fifteen to twenty-five participants and two to three staff members. It’s a very mixed group. I don’t work exclusively with people with AIDS any more because many of the doctors and healthcare services in Holland are referring people with other diseases and people with war trauma, abandonment or sexual, physical, and emotional abuse issues. Everyone seeking their own answers in dealing with issues related to loss and change are welcome to apply.

People will come thinking, “I’m coming to learn how to die,” or “I’m coming to learn how to live,” but they discover that they’ve been carrying a kind of backpack around almost all their lives they feel a weight on their shoulders that they can’t explain, so bit by bit we take some of the stuff out of that backpack and look at it. We bring the dark parts into the light and in doing so, we discover that we were actually more dead than alive by carrying this weight around! As a facilitator, my primary job is to create a physically and emotionally safe environment for this to happen.

In the beginning of the workshop we set a number of agreements about how we’ll be together, about confidentiality and how it’s okay to share our feelings, to be angry, to cry, to feel fear and express it by screaming, for instance, and it’s also okay to be quiet. We begin expressing feelings gradually, but because it’s a group process it goes very quickly but quite deep.

The first evening we have a candlelight memorial ceremony for the many losses that we have had in our lives. People just say a word or a name as they’re lighting a candle. The next morning we do some teaching around what we consider natural emotions that we are born with and enable us to survive in the world, and we teach how they become distorted in our lives, often causing more suffering. That is our ‘unfinished business.’ For example, there was a man recently who was feeling a great deal of fear and there’s nothing more scary than working with fear. I invited him to come forward and I explained: We work only with that what is present in this moment, so if you feel ready to explore this, sit down here and tell me what you’re feeling in your body, because we always start with the body. I started with a relaxation and guided meditation with awareness of breathing. The body gives us a lot of information, it’s as though the cells have a memory. This man shared that he felt as though there was a brick in his belly, it was really hard and black on the outside and bright red inside and less solid. This gave me some indication that there might be a layer of fear (the hard outer layer). The blackness could represent grief, surrounding a lot of anger represented by the inner, red, more fluid part, telling me that it could be explosive and dangerous if released unexpectedly. He told his story of having been a Spanish immigrant child, living in Germany with his family. He was left alone a lot of the time. His father was unhappy with his work and he’d become an alcoholic. His mother worked as a cleaning lady, and was away much of the time. The mother and children were abused by the father when he was drunk. This kid spent more and more time on the street, got involved in a gang to feel that he belonged somewhere and was caught dealing drugs. He was sent to jail, and in jail he was raped, and in the process he was infected with HIV. He had so much fear about getting into his feelings because he thought, If I really get into my feelings I’ll kill someone, and I don’t want to kill people, I don’t want to continue this vicious cycle, I want to stop it!

I explained: This mattress we are sitting on is the boundary, this is where you can get out all your rage and your grief, step by step. Gradually he opened into his deepest feelings and he got into some very deep rage, and what he found beyond that rage was the little child that he’d been when he was three years old. Discovering this child, he sobbed deeply. At three years old, he had been taken care of by his grandmother in Spain while his parents went to Germany to work. She was his security and his love, but she died, and he had to go to Germany to be with his mom and dad, and as the family became increasingly dysfunctional, he was hurt very much in many ways. But when he was able to get into contact with that little child in himself, he again felt the joy and peace that he’d missed for a long time. He came to understand some of the ways that he had learned to neglect and abuse that child, which empowered him to take charge of his life. He began to understand that his parents had done the best they could under the circumstances. Eventually he was able to forgive his parents and himself.

I have found that this work of dealing with our feelings in a very direct way helps us to connect with our ancestors and connect with our spiritual self. We’re not teaching people to beat on telephone books or pillows continually. Sometimes people might need to do that a couple times just to get a sense that they can be angry without getting to the point that they will kill someone. In this way they learn the difference between healthy anger which enables us to say ‘no’, to be assertive and set limits, and distorted anger when we can hurt ourselves and our loved ones. I’ve worked with quite a few war veterans and people in prisons who have killed people, to help them understand that deeper inside there’s a very wounded child who needs to be healed and cared for. When we can access that child, the healing occurs, and the forgiveness develops. I think forgiveness, including self-forgiveness is a very important issue.

Barbara: Do you use conscious breathing in this process?

Rochelle: I do help people to become aware of their breathing how deep, how free it might be in a particular moment. The breath is a key tool that can be used to access the body and to understand what is going on inside, beyond the thinking. I’m very skilled in observing body language.

In the Homecoming workshop we present this work through a form of Gestalt therapy, which is a mixture of a number of psychotherapy techniques. It’s based in healing wounds so that we can come to a place of peace and joy, so that we can live our life with a sense of aliveness instead of merely surviving. Breathing is a real tool. I often will tune in to someone’s breath to understand more deeply where he or she is emotionally at that moment. Our breathing tells us a lot. I become aware of my breathing to see where it’s stopping or where it’s flowing or if it’s smooth or not smooth, kind of like taking my emotional temperature. I explore the places in my body asking for attention (by being painful, closed, restricted, cold, or empty) during my in-breath and offer space and relaxation with the out-breath. In the workshops we begin and end the day with mindfulness meditation, and do walking and sitting meditation with the participants. In the workshop we also demonstrate how we can effectively become better caregivers. If someone has survived and transformed a certain experience of suffering, others can be nourished when that story is witnessed and understood.

Conscious breathing plays a role in the workshops as it does in the dying process. When people become more ill and closer to death, mindful breathing becomes more and more conscious, because when you have no energy, what else can you do but breathe? Through your breathing, you can connect to your emotions, as a way of releasing, letting go, and relaxing. Also as a way of connecting to what is and to that which we are holding on to and avoiding.

This last winter I was very ill with pneumonia and was having a hard time breathing, and I was so grateful that I know how to connect with my breathing through mindfulness practice. From my window in the intensive care unit in the hospital I could just see a small strip of sky between the buildings. I noticed the full moon outside and in this way I connected with my loved ones, and flowed with the pain, not denying anything, but able to connect with love, with life, and with support. I felt completely safe and at one with the universe.

Often people from one of my workshops will ask me to be with them or guide them in their dying process. One of the greatest fears that we have is the fear of dying alone. I don’t think we actually can die alone, but people often fear that they might. So I offer my service of being with them as they prepare to die.

Barbara: What do you mean when you say that you don’t believe that we can die alone?

Rochelle: I feel that we have a lot of help from both sides people with us in the present as well as from the collective consciousness. Often I hear stories from people who have been close to death, who say that a loved one who has already died is present, that their essence is present somehow during the dying process, and that this eases the fear and even can increase the sense of joy and peace in going towards death.

Often I will ask someone who is dying, “What do I tell people who want to know about dying? What is your message, your truth that you would like me to share?” The answer is always similar to how one friend expressed it: “You don’t need to be dying to start living. You can begin now, today. You can heal old pain and finish what is unfinished. Work through your grief, anger, fear and please do express your love enough! Then you can find peace in your life and in your death.” – Jaap Jan, age 34, lived until 1995.

Barbara: As mindfulness practitioners, how can we best be with our loved ones who are ill or dying?

Rochelle: Mindfulness practice is so important because it makes us aware of the moment and of being present, and what sabotages us from being truly present. It can be real hard when it’s your own family member, especially when we have unfinished business, expectations, and unfulfilled longing.

We can learn to be instruments of peace. If we are firmly rooted on the earth, with our head touching the sky, connected to our source of spirituality in the universe, we can be an instrument between the universe and earth. Being peace in ourselves, making peace in our family and community, then we can facilitate the peace process with others. Understanding the breathing is a real tool because dying is not much else than a deep and total relaxation!

Barbara: At retreats we do semi-totally relaxation!

Rochelle: As long as we’re alive we don’t do that quite so totally as when we die!

Barbara: Right, right.

Rochelle:When we come into this world, we fill our lungs with breath, and this is the point of birth. At the end of life we breathe out and we die. I often offer breathing exercises and relaxation exercises to people going through the dying process. If you put a little more accent on the out-breath and it becomes a little bit longer, there is a point when there’s no breath, a still point. The in-breath is effort, and the out-breath is the relaxation or letting go.

Often I meet people who are so concerned about life after this life, or life before this life. I feel we have our hands full with our suffering and our joy in this life! I sometimes wonder if we actually are able to experience life before we die. Many people seem just to be coping to survive, without feeling really alive. So what I do is to bring what we experience as painful and that which we deny or run away from, into our consciousness so that it can heal.

I’ll tell you a story about a really good friend of mine who died a few years ago. He had to have lung surgery, and he’d asked me to be present while he went through this. I stayed with him for the weekend afterwards. He was in and out of consciousness, and every time he became conscious he would grab my hand and not want to let go. But as he would relax and kind of slip away, I let go.  I stayed in a very light physical contact with him with my little finger just touching his, but not with the grasping. And I continued to breathe with him. I would support his breathing with my breath by making it a little audible.

As he came around and awakened, he said, “Rochelle, your being here has felt very supportive, but why did you keep letting go of my hand?”

I explained, “I wasn’t sure if it was your time to go, and I wanted you to feel free. I wanted to be present with you, whichever way you needed to go.”

“Oh,” he said, “I understand. I was grasping.” And I said, “Yes, and I wanted you to know that you had the choice, the courage, and the freedom to do what you needed to do for yourself.”

A few months later he was near death, and I went to the hospital, as he was asking for me. This was Saturday morning and the plan had been for him to go home on Monday so he would be able die at home, probably later that same week. But he was becoming very weak and his breathing was labored. I came into the room I looked at him and he looked at me, and I said, “You know, you are going home.” And he nodded. He knew. I added, “But, we cannot take you to your house, do you understand that?” And he nodded again. He had an oxygen mask on. I asked him, “Do you want me to come sit with you, and do you want me to guide you through this?”

He motioned with his hand, inviting me to sit close by on the bed. He took the oxygen mask off himself.

I said, “Allow yourself to be fully aware of your breathing, and follow your in-breath and your out-breath. Just in between the in and out-breath there is a still point where there is only stillness, before the in-breath starts again. Can you feel that? Gradually, allow your out-breath to become a little bit longer, and just relax into that. Is that okay for you?”

He laid his hand very gently down next to mine, not grasping. He looked at me as if to say, “I got it, I don’t have to hold on any more.” In a few breaths he relaxed completely and his breathing stopped.

It is so touching to witness this letting go, fully conscious and without resistance. He was a great teacher. That was a gift.

Barbara: Where do you see the direction of your work continuing?

Rochelle: I see myself as a privileged listener and I go where I am invited. My hope, my vision, is that my story will be an inspiration for other people to develop their own ways of healing into their own life and death. I’ve trained a few people to continue working with the emotions as I learned from Elisabeth. I’ve done this work throughout Europe, and also in Israel and the USA. At present there are fewer people dying from AIDS, so our center in Holland has become more  of  a  mindfulness practice center for anyone interested in exploring their own answers around loss and change.

In addition to this work in Holland, we have opened a center in Spain where I’ve also been working for the last ten years and there is a team trained to offer similar work there. The last couple of years I’ve been invited to Israel several times, and with the situation in the Mideast right now, I think there’s an awful lot of work to do there.  And there’s the AIDS crisis in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. Some of the newer pain medications have become available in Vietnam for people with cancer; however this medication and nearly all medical care, is denied the people dying of AIDS. I do not have the illusion that I am going to all of those places, but there is much to be done. I’m watching to see what doors open as I continue being a privileged listener and training others to be also.

What I’ve learned very deeply because I’ve been so ill, is we have to take the time to take care of ourselves. We can’t care for anybody else until we take care of ourselves. At present I’m in a new phase of finding my personal balance between doing and not doing.

Barbara: Do you live in chronic pain still?

Rochelle: I have some pain always, in varying degrees, depending on how well I’ve been able to keep myself in balance. I use a combination of some medication, but mostly I use what I call my M.M.&M. therapy (meditation, massage and manual therapy) as well as taking care of my emotional needs and making time for myself to just gaze at the frogs in the pond. Every time someone dies or leaves, I feel the grief very physically. I recognize my grief when my heart feels closed off and often I feel physically cold and uncomfortable. What I’ve found is that I move through the grief process when I’m willing to go deeply into my feelings, including the resistance, by letting myself cry, feel anger, and whatever else I need to do. I am becoming more skillful at embracing these feelings without needing to express them fully; just recognizing them and their original source is often enough. Then my heart can open, be free, and feel supported by the love in the universe again. That’s what I think has helped me to repeatedly regain my balance, along with the support of my Sangha and my partner, throughout the eighteen years that I’ve worked so intensively in this field.

Barbara: As the process of birth has been brought out of the closet, you are helping to bring the process of dying into awareness also. We all need work like yours to help us to face death.

Rochelle:Yes. I’ve offered many trainings for volunteers and for healthcare professionals in the field of palliative care, and the work is always about our own issues. We often think, as professionals, we come into this work because we want to help others, but we have to help ourselves first. Because in dealing with dying people, if you aren’t completely authentic, they know! They are always a few steps ahead of us showing us the way!

Barbara: It’s like being with children.

Rochelle: Absolutely.  You can’t fool them at all.  They know when you’re being real and when you’re not!

Barbara: [laughs] That’s true! Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with the worldwide Sangha.

Rochelle: Thank you for asking.

Rochelle Griffin, True Light of Peace, Chân An Quang, practices with the Sangha Riverland. She lives with her partner, Jantien, and their golden retriever, ‘Gino-the-Joyful’ at the Vuurvlinder Center and Guesthouse for conscious living and dying, in Heerewaarden, a small village in the center of The Netherlands. Rochelle enjoys learning about the wild environmental needs of reptiles by breeding them in the safety of her large garden.

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is the managing editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

Photos by Harry Pelgrim.

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Cultivating Our Blue Sky Nature

Skillful Means for Emotional Healing

By John Bell

In the mid-1990s, John Bell began leading workshops on handling stress for the young people and staff in the YouthBuild programs throughout the United States. At the workshop, John introduced them to meditation and to methods of emotional healing.

John has been exploring ways of combining meditation and methods of emotional healing for many years. In one pivotal insight, he noticed that feelings often come up when sitting in meditation and that if we pay specific attention to them, either then or immediately after sitting, they will naturally release themselves and became conscious doors for liberation.

Several years ago John began offering an annual Day of Mindfulness focusing on mindfulness and emotional healing for folks from the greater Boston area Sanghas.

Each year, more people attend. In the fall of 2003, in Berkeley, California, Dharma teacher Lyn Fine and John teamed up to offer a weekend retreat on the topic. Another one is being offered this June, in Connecticut.

This article offers an invitation to use emotions as an object of meditation. It highlights some of the methods John uses to uncover, hold, and transform difficult feelings.

Feelings

There are some things we know about feelings.  They are impermanent, always changing. They often connect us most directly with ourselves. Typically feelings are problematic, a source of confusion and suffering. Feelings are usually riddled with our judgments—I should feel this way, or, I shouldn’t feel that way; this feeling is bad, that one good. In the midst of the confusion we try our best to handle them. Often we wind up suppressing or repressing the feeling that is present, or perhaps acting out the feeling inappropriately. This leads to more inner turmoil and distress. Hurtful experiences, plus our judgments about the feelings that accompany those experiences, soon lead us to feel that there is something wrong, or that “I’m not okay.” This negative self-judgment obscures our ultimate nature.

Five Practices for Handling Feelings

In a Dharma talk reprinted in the Fall 2000 Mindfulness Bell, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches five main practices for handling feelings, each of which is intimately connected to the others. As a brief review, the five are:

  • "Blue sky": Ground ourselves in the ultimate The blue sky is a metaphor for the nature of things, ultimate reality, our home. It is always there behind the local, historical dimension that we get conditioned to think is reality. The blue sky is the is-ness, the ok-ness. To describe it, we use words like “spacious, free, happy, connected, oneness, well-being, no separation, no separate self ”. Each of us has experienced our blue sky nature many, many times. Perhaps in music, love-making, nature, a moment of being “awake.” In C.S. Lewis’s happy phrasing, “surprised by joy!”

  • "Noting": Learn to observe feelings coming and going. After establishing ourselves solidly in the breath, we allow the different feelings to arise and fall away like waves on the We can use helpful phrases like “feeling sad” (or, “angry, jealous, fearful”, and so on), or “this feeling too” to whatever comes. Relating back to the “blue sky” practice, we can be aware of different feelings like clouds moving across the blue sky.

  • "Change the peg": Move attention off suffering, onto something positive or interesting, or at least In older methods of carpentry, pieces of wood were attached with a peg. Sometimes a rotten peg would have to be replaced by pounding a new one into the same hole. Originally taught by the Buddha, Thay uses this metaphor to point to the many tools at our disposal for “watering the positive seeds.” When a negative feeling seems to dominate our awareness, we can deliberately choose to get our attention off our troubles by reading a poem, listening to music, taking a walk, reciting a sutra, caring for another person. This list is unlimited.

  • "Taking the hand of suffering": Embracing what Accepting, befriending feelings. Thay urges us not to treat our sadness or unhappiness as an enemy. “Dear anger, I recognize you. Come, stay with me. I know you are suffering. I know how to care for you.” The practice is to just be with the feeling, not get overwhelmed or swept away, and not run away. This is a variation of “noting.” “So this is what sadness feels like. Hmm. Very interesting.” Kind and gentle.

  • "Look deeply”: Examine the roots of With persistent feelings that seem to have a deep hold on us and won’t go away, we can practice exploring the roots of distressed feelings. In my experience, the roots are either in repeated experiences of hurt beginning early in our lives, or in a severe incident of trauma or hurt at any vulnerable moment along the way. What is helpful is to have a friend listen warmly and attentively while we explore the past. Typically tears and fears and laughter and anger will accompany the release of deep and long-lasting hurts. The emotional release will allow understanding to arise. “Oh, that’s why I have always felt like that!” Insight.

Each of these five practices is deep. Each can be greatly elaborated and extended over time. Each can be practiced individually or in community. We can take feelings as an object of meditation. Our Sanghas can help us practice emotional healing. We can learn to deliberately deepen safety to explore feelings. We can create space to allow for feelings. We can be internally attentive to our judgments about feelings. Over time, we can develop comfort and skill with any and all of the five practices mentioned above. Here, let us focus on two practices, the first and the last, “Blue Sky” and “Looking Deeply.”

Blue Sky Practice

In the Spring of 2001 at a retreat called “Mindfulness and Emotional Healing” for the Boston area Sanghas, Order of Interbeing member Joanne Sunshower and I introduced a “Blue Sky Practice.” We started by inviting everyone to sing Irving Berlin’s happy and familiar song, “Blue Skies”:

Blue skies, smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Blue birds singing a song
Nothing but blue birds from now on

We talked about our blue sky nature and how feelings and other mind states are like weather passing through the blue sky. If we identify with the weather we can easily forget that the blue sky is always there and holds all weather, and that weather is temporary. Finding ways of touching where we live, our ultimate nature, our blue skies, is a deep and useful practice.

To explore this we asked people to break into pairs, with each taking an uninterrupted ten minute turn to tell the listener about times we experienced blue sky. We asked them to think of this as a two-person Dharma discussion, listening without interruption.

After breathing in silence, the speaker might remember a time he or she felt whole, connected, completely loved, one with everything, in touch with unlimited compassion, or other aspects of the ultimate dimension. Or she might look around and touch the blue sky in the present.

We asked the listener to assume the attitude of Buddha. How would Buddha look at the speaker? How would Buddha listen? What attitude would Buddha have toward the speaker? These questions can be helpful when we remember that what Buddha would be seeing is the Buddha nature of the speaker.

In sharing about the experience afterwards, practitioners reported delight in being able to bring memories of blue sky times into present awareness, or to simply look, listen, and feel the blue skyness of

the moment. For some, tears flowed surprisingly quickly when they turned their attention toward the ultimate reality. Basking in the warm attention of the listener seemed to help the process. This practice has elicited similar responses each time I have introduced it over the past several years.

Practice of Looking Deeply at Suffering

Grounding oneself in the ultimate dimension can form a solid base for exploring our pain in the relative dimension. The Blue Sky practice can form an anchor. Repeatedly, my experience has been that when I can listen deeply to another person for a long enough time, the person often spontaneously moves toward looking deeply at the roots of their pain. Why do we do this so reliably? My own practice over the years convinces me that it is a natural process.

Our inherent Buddha nature gets obscured by hurt, oppression, misinformation, lack of information, family conditioning, inherited cultural beliefs, and a million other forms of harm. Such accumulated hurts shape our patterns of perception, ideas of self, and other mental formations. Mindfulness meditation, practiced with diligence and persistence, can eventually penetrate these veils and once again put a person in touch with the freedom and equanimity of the blue sky. Paying attention to feelings, looking at suffering, is not hard to do in a mindfulness context. It is a necessary and inevitable process along the path of liberation. Recasting the Four Noble Truths to focus on emotional hindrances might sound something like this:

There is suffering. Here we are speaking of emotional distress and physical hurt. Buddha named suffering as the first truth to help us acknowledge and accept suffering rather than deny or avoid it. All Western therapeutic schools likewise state that healing begins when a person faces the pain. “It hurts.”

There is a cause of suffering. Buddha taught that the cause is ignorance of reality, is thinking there is independent existence, is not understanding the impermanent nature of things and trying to hold on to what must change. Wrapped around these big issues for any individual are the scars of untold layers of hurtful experiences—things that happened to the person because he or she is born into a whole world full of suffering and falseness. Things like being unloved, scorned, rejected, not valued, humiliated, abused, disrespected, mis-educated, oppressed, ignored, not welcomed, lied to, mistreated, made to feel powerless, misled, physically hurt, pampered into numbness, not accepted, insulted, demeaned, or made to be afraid.

There is a way out of suffering.  For Buddha, understanding the nature of reality meant liberation from suffering. Along the emotional healing path, increased freedom from suffering comes as a person heals past trauma, reevaluates the past, sheds old patterns of thought and behavior, and gradually identifies with a healthier sense of self. As many people have noted, one has to have a strong, integrated ego in order to transcend the ego and move to the deeper insights that Buddha taught. Buddhist psychology speaks of purification as a step towards liberation.

The practice of the path is the means for ending suffering. Buddha put forth a comprehensive Eightfold Path—a set of moral guidelines, concentration practices, conceptual directions, and practices for daily living that, if followed diligently, can lead to insight and the transformation of suffering. What might be some elements of the path to end emotional suffering? Here are ones that I have found useful and consistent with Buddhist teachings.

  • Cultivate a noble view of human beings. Know that every human being, by nature, is Buddha I use this description: By nature, human beings are

    • inherently valuable

    • deeply caring

    • enormously intelligent

    • immensely powerful

    • infinitely creative

    • naturally cooperative

    • innately joyful

Whenever I’ve asked a group of people to repeat these words out loud, the tone rises immediately. Why? Because the words reach for the noblest of human characteristics, and most of us intuitively know that we are these things, if we could only be free of what holds us back. I could say that by nature, human beings are impermanent, aimless, and empty, but these words don’t instantly resonate with most people in the West like the first set of words!

  • Listen deeply. What are the elements of deep listening? We practice these in our Sanghas.

    • Hold the person in high regard; visualize their Buddha nature.

    • Treat the person with complete respect.

    • Be present and

    • Assume the person knows best how to lead his or her life.

    • Communicate acceptance and lack of judgment.

    • Give your undivided attention, focused concentration, and mindful

    • Encourage awareness and recognition of feelings; recognize that release is a key component of healing.

Deep listening is a powerful tool for healing. Our listening can improve with practice. Invoking Avalokiteshvara’s name states: “We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice, without any judging or reacting. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.”

  • Hold some understanding of the impact of distress. Hurts lead a person to develop self-defense patterns of thought, feelings, and behaviors. Buddhist psychology calls them “kleshas”—powerful reactions that drive our behavior. Initially developed as survival mechanisms to deal with the hurt, these patterns take on a life of their own and persist long after the hurtful experiences have passed. In other words, the negative seeds have received too much water! They tend to control our vital energies and obscure our inherent nature. The most persistent of these patterns are chronic—that is, they operate almost all the time and a person tends to identify with them. Think of someone who is chronically angry, or chronically depressed, or always ready to criticize any good idea, or can be counted on to be the center of attention, or is painfully shy.

  • Practice separating a person from his or her patterns. Always view that person as wholesome and worthwhile, deserving nothing less than complete Always view their patterns as a map of the ways they were mistreated or hurt; not an inherent part of their being, but an add-on. Nurturing compassion is another form of this practice. For example, Thay suggests we practice visualizing our father or our mother as a six-year-old child. Even if we have suffered greatly from our parents, seeing them as younger can open our hearts— we might see them as innocent and pure-hearted, or we might see them already hurt at an early age, and set up to pass that hurt on to us.

  • Welcome feelings. One level of healing happens as a person releases the emotional distresses that are the glue of the patterns. Crying, laughing, shivering, feeling hot with anger are outward signs of the release of distress feelings. This release is natural to all human beings, as can be observed most readily in small children: when hurt they cry. In my experience, most people can learn how to accept and express their pent up feelings appropriately rather than suppress them or act them out. Dealing with feelings with mindfulness is a learned practice. We can learn to feel them without getting overwhelmed by them or identifying ourselves with them.

  • Practice appreciation and validation. “Violence never ceases by violence, but only by love,” said the Buddha. Our hurts have caused us to direct huge amounts of internal violence towards ourselves in the form of self-criticisms, low expectations, lack of self-worth, and so on. Such internal negative chatter cannot withstand a steady dose of self-appreciation. Repeatedly telling yourself things like “I forgive myself,” or “You are fine just the way you are,” or “I’ll never give up on you,” done with mindfulness and persistence, can bring healing tears of release and joy. Loving kindness, or metta meditation points us to our inherent well-being: may I be filled with love and compassion; may my body be peaceful and at ease; may I be safe from fear and harm; may I be happy; may I be healthy. Directed towards oneself, metta is a form of self-appreciation that serves to counter the sometimes constant drone of negative self-talk. Directed towards others, it becomes an effective practice of appreciating others that also has a deep healing effect on oneself.

  • Hold a direction towards our inherent nature. Here is where we circle back to the Blue Sky Regular practice of noticing the presence of the good, the beautiful, the true builds our strength and can put us increasingly in touch with the reality of our inherent nature. In a Dharma talk (November 25, 1999, Plum Village), Thay said: “To allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the negative feeling when we touch what is wrong, is not a good thing to do. Therefore we should…recognize the positive elements for our nourishment and healing.”

Skillful Means

Of course, all of these practices, concepts, and methods are simply skillful means, as are all Buddhist teachings—potentially helpful aids along the path of liberation. As layers of suffering are released, practices change or are sloughed off. Eventually, or at least for longer and longer moments, we won’t have to practice metta, we will be living metta. We won’t have to practice listening deeply, we will be present. We won’t have to practice welcoming feelings, we will accept whatever comes. And so on. But along the way, such practices are powerful compasses to help steer us through the prevailing fog of falsehood. So, in addition to sitting in silence, we may also have to let ourselves do a lot of crying and laughing, and feeling scared and angry. We can become very skillful at providing the safety, clarity, boundaries, encouragement, and practices for our Sangha sisters and brothers to do mindfulness-based emotional healing.  All it takes is practice.

John Bell, True Wonderful Wisdom, practices with the Mountain Bell Sangha in Belmont, Massachusetts. He is the founding director of the YouthBuild Academy for Transformation, which provides the tools, insights, and training that promote youth transformation. He has thirty-eight years of experience in the youth field as teacher, counselor, community organizer, and parent of two.

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My Path as a Mindful Educator

By Richard Brady mb54-MyPath1

“Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to awaken them.” This is the first of the four great bodhisattva vows of Mahayana Buddhism. Whether or not we aspire to be bodhisattvas, once we embark on the Buddhist path we realize that we are practicing not only for ourselves but for the world. As an educator working with young people, I’ve been particularly aware of the tremendous opportunity I’ve been given to help others awaken.

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My involvement with Thay and with mindfulness in education began almost simultaneously. It was 1987, and I was working as a high school mathematics teacher. My school community was experiencing an unusual amount of stress following four attempted suicides. One day that winter I began reading The Miracle of Mindfulness and saw immediately how useful its teachings could be for my very busy students. If they incorporated mindfulness into their lives, they would be able to cope with life’s inevitable challenges. The very next day I began to share short readings from the book with my classes, following our opening silence. Starting from the initial lesson about how to have unlimited time for oneself, students appreciated these readings as supplements to their mathematical learning. When I finished reading that book, the students asked for another, and I read them The Sun My Heart.

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Thay’s teachings sounded wonderful to me. However, the way of living he portrayed in these books felt so different from my own. It seemed to me that I could not get there from where I was. As fate would have it, near the end of that school year when the seniors returned from three weeks of working off-campus on senior projects, I noticed a presentation by one of the seniors—a boy named Chris—about his project at the Zen Center of Washington, DC. “Here is someone with meditation experience, someone I can learn from,” I thought. Chris began his presentation by telling us that a classmate and he had been reading Eastern religion and philosophy since seventh grade. Recently, he had discovered the local Zen center and “decided to put my body where my mind was.” I felt Chris was talking directly to me.

He spoke of his experience with tremendous enthusiasm. He showed pictures and recounted some dramatic experiences he’d had during the three-day intensive meditation retreat he attended as part of his project. At the conclusion of his talk, another student asked Chris whether his life was different now in any way besides the amount of time he spent sitting on cushions. Chris responded by saying that meditation had many effects on him. “However,” he added, “most are so subtle I can’t put them into words.” After a pause, he went on, “I can tell you that I am less angry.” Chris’s presentation, especially this last statement, was very moving to me. I thanked him and made a promise to him and to myself that I would try to meditate.

One year later I met Thay at Omega Institute in New York. There I was introduced to the custom of stopping at the sound of a bell and giving my full attention to the present moment. I came home with a small bell and brought it to my math classes. I sounded it at the beginning of class, and from time to time during the class period, to help the students stop and center themselves. Time seemed to stop during those brief moments. The students responded to the bell with respect. When I came home, I also began a daily sitting practice and helped found the Washington Mindfulness Community.

As my meditation practice matured, my life started to slow down. I became more relaxed. Mindfulness practice was helping me handle my emotions in a healthy way, improving my awareness, and increasing my sense of well-being. I now had the confidence I needed to teach it to students. In the health component of our Freshman Studies course, I began teaching meditation to help our ninth-graders create more space in their lives and reduce stress. Then, since math tests were a source of stress for so many students, I started to offer guided meditations before each test and quiz. First I asked students to get in touch with their emotions—excitement, nervousness, even fear—and then to observe these emotions without getting carried away by them. Next, I asked them to visualize a time when they had felt good about some mathematical accomplishment, perhaps learning to count or solving a particularly challenging algebra problem. After a couple of minutes, students were ready to begin work with a positive focus.

I was the only teacher in my school sharing mindfulness practices with students, so I was most gratified when Thay extended a special invitation to educators to attend his two U.S. retreats in 2001. During these retreats, educators had opportunities to meet in interest groups and share thoughts about promoting mindfulness in their educational institutions. After the retreats several of us formed the Mindfulness in Education Network (MiEN) as a continuation of these groups. MiEN’s first endeavor was the creation of a listserv, which started with 86 people. It now has 550 participants worldwide, ranging from kindergarten teachers to university professors and adult educators. Participants use the listserv to share their successes, challenges, and advice. More recently, the MiEN website (www.mindfuled.org) was developed. It includes many resources on mindfulness in education and instructions on how to join the listserv.

Wanting to expand the role of mindfulness in my mathematics teaching, I attended The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society’s fi weeklong summer workshop on contemplative curriculum development in 2005. My plan was to add a contemplative component to my tenth-grade honors geometry course. The workshop presenters and the other participants, thirty-five professors from the U.S. and Canada, were inspiring. I returned home with new ideas about contemplative reading and journaling and, more importantly, a profound sense of trust in the whole endeavor. I knew I still had a lot to learn and that I would make mistakes. I also saw that it would take time for many of my students to reap the full benefits of contemplative methods of learning. I was clear about their value and would try to communicate that clarity to my students. I would use these methods myself and grow as a learner alongside them. The course featured five minutes of contemplative practice (journal writing, meditation, or yoga) at the beginning of each class. I’ve described it in the paper Learning to Stop, Stopping to Learn, which can be found on my website, www.mindingyourlife.net.

In 2007 I retired from high school math teaching, wanting to work full time promoting mindfulness in education. During the past three years, I’ve offered mindfulness programs to educators and students, written articles, co-edited a book (Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning), and coordinated the first three MiEN national conferences. The conferences bring together several hundred participants, including early childhood educators, professors, counselors, and yoga teachers. They come to hear leaders in their fields describe the latest results in mindfulness research, university courses based on mindfulness, and creative approaches for sharing mindfulness with K-12 students. And they come to network with others who share a common passion. I leave each conference feeling informed, energized, and supported by the work of many others.

It has been my privilege to be involved with other organizations that focus on mindfulness in education. These include The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which has supported contemplative pedagogy in higher education since the early 1990s, and its recently formed Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education. It also includes Inner Kids, and the Association for Mindfulness in Education, which focus on K-12 education. Links to these and other organizations can be found on the MiEN website. My greatest joy remains finding skillful ways to invite educators and students to practice, whether through including poems and short teaching stories in my writings, or offering short practice opportunities during my presentations.

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Those of us who share mindfulness with young people often ask ourselves, “At the end of the day, has it made a difference?” We believe it has, but controlled research studies aside, do we really know? Four years ago, at my school’s annual holiday alumni reception, I had a memorable conversation with Tom, a former student whom I had last seen when he graduated in 1989. Tom shared something of his career path, ending with his current job as a compliance lawyer for the World Bank. When he asked me what I was up to, I handed him my Minding Your Life business card. “Mindfulness Education,” he read. “That’s like the story you read to us about washing the dishes.” (He was referring to Thay’s story about being present to washing the dishes from The Miracle of Mindfulness.) I was surprised Tom remembered the story eighteen years later. It turned out that in the interim he had also read several books on mindfulness.

Five weeks later I discovered that the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society would be holding a meditation retreat for law professionals at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the spring. I sent Tom an email suggesting he check it out. I also mentioned that I had been moved by his recollection of the dishwashing story. Tom replied immediately, thanking me for the recommendation and concluding, “And if it means something to you, I’d be very surprised if there are any of us who were in that BC Calculus class back in ’88–’89 who don’t remember the introduction you gave us then to Thich Nhat Hanh.”

mb54-MyPath5Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, received the Lamp Transmission in 2001 to work with young people. He lives in Putney, Vermont, where he practices with the Mountains and Rivers Mindfulness  Community.

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