musings + meditation: on the first day of a new year

It was 17° F on New Year’s Day, and my practice still beckoned me to honor my commitment to get sorted, settled and centered–body, heart, and mind–through my walking/running meditation.

There’s a special stillness in winter that I deeply appreciate. Fewer people venture out when the temperature dips below 30 °F, and only the bravest dare to “play” if the sun’s not offering some illusion of warmth. Slate grey sky. Stark white snow. A solid path along a river flowing beneath a thickening sheet of ice. Scraggly winter-stripped branches and a frizzled ridge of vegetation mark the border between shoreline and water.

I feel enveloped and penetrated by this rare moment of quietude. The sensation of refuge arises to warm my muscles–fueling each step or sprint.

I am reminded of the “witching hours” when I’m awakened by the moon. Fully alert and energized, I sit or lie down to meditate, abiding in breath, or write out my contemplations in my journal. Reprieve in a house that is typically buzzing with the energy of my 3-year old daredevil and the electricity of appliances and electronics in constant service. A murmur and sweet sigh from my son. I pause, instinctually ready to respond to his call. I relax once more. A startling chainsaw-like snore from my mate. I pause again, listening to the pattern. If it continues, I move to another room.

These sacred spaces–a park in winter, a house in slumber–magnify the wonder and magic of my mindfulness practice.

snow don’t stop the show

remembrance + reconciliation: prayers for thanksgiving

Today, may we appreciate this food
and remember those who are hungry.
May we appreciate our family and friends
and remember those who are alone.
May we appreciate our health
and remember those who are sick.
May we appreciate the freedoms we have
and remember those who suffer injustice and tyranny.1

I spent Wednesday morning in our tiny kitchen blanching, boiling, carmelizing, chiffonading, chopping, cubing, dicing, sautéing, seasoning, smelling, stirring, and tasting.

As I breathed in the swirl of pungent and sweet aromas from the herbs, vegetables and meat, I breathed out loving awareness and prayers of gratitude for the gift of being able to prepare and share a Thanksgiving meal with my family. My mate and I openly acknowledged that our blessings outweighed any minor irritations that come with hosting a holiday gathering: our good health, solid relationships, comfortable home, and modest but sufficient financial resources.

I quietly returned to the prep work, thinking of those among my circle of friends and family who were ill/injured or had recently died and those who were caring for a dying relative or a coping with the loss of a loved one. In fact, within a short stretch of days leading up to Thanksgiving I counted a death, a discovery of a debilitating condition, several surgeries, and two terminal cancer diagnoses. Knowing how close and inevitable these life events are, I shook my head and breathed a prayer that all be nourished and sustained during times of difficulty.

But suffering is not easy to shake. So the complexities surrounding this day of “celebration” continued to emerge:

the sanitized and commercialized myths of this holiday’s origins;

the brutalities inflicted upon Native peoples at the hands of explorers whose own quests for freedom stripped away theirs;

the continued suffering of Native peoples by the oppressive systems that arose from the corrupt values of those nation builders;

the  legacy of this nation still so divided by racial, social, and economic injustices that repeatedly threaten our very rights as humans to freely be who we are, choose whom we love as well as how we care for ourselves and our families;

the suffering within families who may—just for this single day—cast aside hurts and differences to endure each other’s presence over a special dinner but will be unable to truly heal and reconcile;

the suffering of those who will not spend this day in a safe space, full of love and laughter.

Recalling my own family’s internal struggles, I have frequently questioned why anyone would go through the rigmarole and pretense for a few hours of family time, if the days before and after would be fraught with conflict.

How can any single (and so-called holy) day, burdened with such history and memory, also restore our hope and inspire reconciliation? 

It may be a beginning. But wholehearted and diligent effort is what sustains. As dharma practitioners, we learn and take refuge in numerous mindfulness practices to nourish compassionate understanding for our deep and boundless connections to all beings and to heal our past and present wounds.

Around cultural events such as Thanksgiving or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, my root sangha has practiced Touching the Earth wherein we recite the six contemplations and, following each one, bow deeply to the earth in full prostration. It is an act of remembrance and homage for blood ancestors; spiritual ancestors; the land, Native Americans, and those who work to reverse the violence and injustices that have harmed us all; and those whom we love. As well, it supports us to reconcile, in our hearts and spirits, the suffering caused by people who have hurt us; and, lastly, to make peace with the religion of our origins, from which we have become estranged or disconnected.2

Honoring and acknowledging our gifts and blessings, may the love, understanding and laughter we share with friends and family nourish and sustain us in times of suffering and celebration. May our memories be purified and our hearts restored–full, strong, open and clear–turning toward reconciliation.

______________

1I first encountered this blessing, “May We Appreciate & Remember,” in Angeles Arrien’s book Living in Gratitude. It is also featured among this collection of blessings from other traditions: http://www.ctyankee.org/fs/page/001728/gracesfrommanytraditions.pdf
2 See also Thich Nhat Hanh’s Teachings on Love.

Contemplations for Practice: Living Buddha, Living Christ ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

This afternoon I will step out of the family Easter dinner to enjoy walking and sitting meditation with my yoga-sangha.

When I realized that my regular Sunday practice fell squarely in the center of the high holy days of Passover and Easter, and at the end of the Religious Awareness Week our local university organized (and at which my dharma sister shared and led a Zen meditation practice), I was inspired to re-read Thich Nhat Hanh’s contemplations in Living Buddha, Living Christ.

Here, I share some of the passages that resonate with my personal experiences of the interbeingness of Buddhism (the practice that began to organically blossom in my life before I even knew it formally as “Buddhism”), Christianity (the practice in which I was raised and often felt at-odds with) and Judaism (the practice of my maternal great-great grandmother that I came to touch through my Jewish dharma sisters who have invited me to celebrate holy days such as Passover and Yom Kippur).  In my practice today, I will touch the earth in honor of my spiritual ancestors and teachers.

“RELIGIOUS LIFE IS LIFE”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To me, religious life is life. I do not see any reason to spend one’s whole life tasting just one kind of fruit.  We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions.

Professor Hans Kung has said, “Until there is peace between religions, there can be no peace in the world.”  People kill and are killed because they cling too tightly to their own beliefs and ideologies.  When we believe that ours is the only faith that contains truth, violence and suffering will surely be the result.  The second precept of the Order of Interbeing, founded within the Zen Buddhist tradition during the war in Vietnam, is about letting go of views: “Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to receive others’ viewpoints.” To me, this is the most essential practice of peace.

“TOUCHING JESUS”

But my path to discovering Jesus as one of my spiritual ancestors was not easy. The colonization of my country by the French was deeply connected with the efforts of the Christian missionaries…In such an atmosphere of discrimination and injustice against non-Christians, it was difficult for me to discover the beauty of Jesus’ teachings.

It was only later, through friendships with Christian men and women who truly embody the spirit of understanding and compassion of Jesus, that I have been able to touch the depths of Christianity. The moment I met Martin Luther King, Jr., I knew I was in the presence of a holy person. Not just his good work but his very being was a source of great inspiration for me. And others, less well known, have made me feel that Lord Jesus is still here with us…Through men and women like these, I feel I have been able to touch Jesus Christ and His Tradition.

“LIVING IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD”

In the Jewish tradition, the sacredness of mealtimes is very much emphasized. You cook, set the table, and eat in the presence of God. “Piety” is an important word in Judaism, because all of life is a reflection of God, the infinite source of holiness. The entire world, all the good things in life, belong to God, so when you enjoy something, you think of God and enjoy it in His presence. It is very close to the Buddhist appreciation of interbeing and interpenetration…

Piety is the recognition that everything is linked to the presence of God in every moment. The Passover Seder, for example, is a ritual meal to celebrate the freedom of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt and their journey home. During the meal, certain vegetables and herbs, salt, and other condiments help us touch what happened in the past—what was our suffering and what was our hope. This is a practice of mindfulness.

“ENJOY BEING ALIVE”

To breathe and know you are alive is wonderful. Because you are alive, everything is possible.  The Sangha, the community of practice, can continue. The church can continue. Please don’t waste a single moment. Every moment is an opportunity to breathe life into the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Every moment is an opportunity to manifest the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit…

You need only to walk in mindfulness, making peaceful, happy steps on our planet. Breathe deeply, and enjoy your breathing. Be aware that the sky is blue and the birds’ songs are beautiful. Enjoy being alive and you will help the living Christ and the living Buddha continue for a long, long time.