Archive for the ‘Buddhism’ Category

Barack Obama














It is easy for many of us to take for granted the second inauguration of President Obama today. The fact that this auspicious occasion happens to fall on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day underlines many reasons we should not. There is such satisfying symmetry in celebrating our black president’s reelection on this day.

Here in the U.S., there are four federal holidays honoring individual men. The other three so honored are of course George Washington, Christopher Columbus, and Jesus Christ. Imagine the conversation that might ensue should that celebrated foursome defy the boundaries of time and gather for a meal together. It is an interesting reflection of a country, with all our complexity and contradictions, to consider the heroes we collectively venerate.

Indeed President Obama’s ascent to the presidency, regardless of one’s personal political leanings, is a celebration of the conviction that race should not bar one from such office. However, Dr. King’s teachings on peace, his careful illumination of the path to end violence abroad and at home, is timely  – and as exceedingly difficult and PERSONAL today as it was then – or as it was centuries ago in the time of the Buddha.

May there be peace in our time, and may it begin in each of us.

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Never does hatred cease by hating in return;

Only through love can hatred come to an end.

Victory breeds hatred; the conquered dwell in sorrow and resentment.

They who give up all thought of victory or defeat

may be calm and live happily at peace.

Let us overcome violence by gentleness.

Let us overcome evil by good.

Let us overcome the miserly by liberality.

Let us overcome the liar by truth.

~The Buddha, Dhammapada



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It seems everywhere I turned this week, someone was announcing the arrival of Transition. On Friday we passed the autumnal Equinox when the sun appears to cross the equator from north to south heralding the first day of fall. Even in Texas, recent days have brought a palpable change in the temperature and the quality of light. At these times of seasonal transition, the buzz is that we are experiencing a moment of shift, a time-sensitive opportunity to let go and to prepare for the next season of our life – out with the old and in with the new.

I’m the Transition poster child, here in my new hometown with my new nephew, building a new house and a new private practice – I’m even physically in transit as I type this, writing from 30,000 feet in the air. And in truth, it seems everyone I know is in the midst of some fairly large transitional turbulence – a new marriage, a new job, a major remodel, a father’s death, an imminent relocation. Either I’m hanging out with a self-selecting crowd of transitioners, or there is a larger trend at work here. Being in transition seems to be the new black.

The implication of all this transition talk is that it’s somehow contained: we’re passing through a discreet blip on the calendar, an unsettled moment sandwiched between some larger, more serene moments. Pretty soon, we’ll get through it and be on the other side. We’ll be in the MIDDLE of autumn, in the full swing of the school year, firmly established in the second year of home-ownership. Things are gonna settle down. Any minute now.

What struck me today is that this sense of turbulence isn’t remotely unique to this spot on the calendar. The transitions just keep coming. There isn’t a period up ahead when life promises to stop delivering tectonic shifts. While I have caught myself blaming this condition on our modern lifestyle (“…we’re so addicted to speed and excess information and multitasking and hasty decisions prompted by marketing campaigns, no one makes time for stillness any more…”), in reality, it’s a fact of the human experience, just part of the package. The ancient Buddhist teachings on impermanence underline the ever-present nature of change. The only constant really IS change, and that was true even back when Heraclitus first said it in the 5th century B.C.

As common as it is, that doesn’t diminish how uncomfortable it feels (to most of us) to be in transition for long. According to Ayurveda, as I wrote in my last post, transitions (even “good” ones) aggravate vata dosha, which can lead to a variety of discomforts like stress headaches, constipation, joint pain, indigestion, feeling off-center, ungrounded or outright panic-stricken. Teaching us how to pacify vata is one of the great gifts of Ayurveda as a health system, helping us to tolerate the turbulence of life’s passage with greater ease.

As I prepared to get on this plane (one of the most vata aggravating activities out there), I reminded myself what would help me feel grounded and comfy in my skin in the days ahead:

  • Stick to my routines – to the extent possible, get up at the same time, eat at the same time, do my morning routine as usual.
  • Eat vata-pacifying foods – warm, moist, soft comfort food. (Soup and oatmeal are good bets to seek out in the slim pickings of an airport.)
  • Ask myself regularly, “Am I thirsty?” and then drink something, preferably something warm. At the very least, avoid ice.
  • Stay warm. Keep a scarf in the car. Cover my head, and ears in particular, when it’s windy out.
  • For God’s sake, don’t stop abhyanga (applying oil to the skin before showering) – this is an easy one to let drop by the wayside while traveling or feeling time-deprived, and all the more potent at those times.
  • Create some mental stillness. People-watch instead of trying to accomplish something during my connection. Close my eyes and breathe. Look out the window and daydream.
  • Think of something I’m grateful for, and then tell the responsible people. Dwelling in gratitude is the best anti-anxiety medicine there is.

So, welcome to autumn, my friends. Welcome to this time of transition – and to the one that’s coming right after it. Plato’s surprisingly timely words of advice remind us that humanity has been engaged in this turbulence all along:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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One of my teachers, Dr. Claudia Welch, often quotes her guru who once advised her (when she was 7 years old, no less), “Keep good company. Good company makes a man great.” When I hear Dr. Welch repeat these words, I am always taken by the image of a wise old man (whose actual likeness I’ve never seen, so I invent) imparting these words to such a little girl – a girl who has held firmly to them and passed them along to other ready ears over her lifetime.

Recently I’ve been contemplating what exactly is good company? What qualifies someone (or something) as good company? To my mind, there are two categories: First are those with intrinsic goodness, those who embody integrity, kindness, honesty, respect. I think of this as empirical goodness, the definition of “good” that no one will dispute.

The second category I think of as situational or functional goodness, company who is “good FOR you” or good for a particular reason. These are the people who remind us of something valued or who inspire us to reach towards a worthy goal. They are good company because they serve a purpose for us. They help keep us on our chosen path in spite of distraction or temptation.

At the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh

Living in the quiet and peace of New Mexico for the past month, I have been reflecting on how much easier it is to maintain new routines when surrounded by a conducive environment. It’s easy to lose sight of your very good intentions or your rationale for doing certain practices when there is no mechanism to remind you of what you value. This fact is acknowledged in many spiritual traditions. Buddhists are guided to “take refuge” in the three gems: the Buddha, the dharma (the Buddha’s teaching), and the sangha (the community of fellow seekers). I love this idea, that we can actually find shelter and protection not only in the teacher and the teaching, exalted and lofty ideals at times, but also in the earthbound people like us who have chosen the same path – this is good company.

Having some unscheduled time has allowed me to delve into some books that have been on my list for a looooooong time.  One such volume is the hefty tome Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an ancient text on the practice of yoga. I was excited to come upon a verse titled, “Causes of Success in Sadhana.” Sadhana means spiritual practice and here refers not only to the postures of yoga but the meditative practices designed to move us towards a deeper sense of connection or self-realization. As anyone who has tried to meditate will attest, it can be hard work, so I was (and remain) open for pointers.

The verse gives six qualities or actions that make a practice strong: “Enthusiasm, perseverance, discrimination, unshakeable faith, courage, and avoiding the company of common people are the (six causes) which bring success in yoga” (chapter 1, verse 16i). Now, the first five are certainly worthy pointers, but that sixth one caught my attention. Claudia’s guru echoed in my head – not only are we advised to seek good company but to avoid certain other company, here identified as “common” (a fascinating term to attempt to define), a related but different aim.

I have watched my tendency to be polite, or my desire not to rock the boat, lead me to withstand company that is not “good” – not wretched or malicious perhaps, but not like-minded or inspirational. Spending time with people who do not share our goals, be they spiritual goals, health-oriented, professional, or behavioral goals, can dissipate our focus. A “common” person encountered at the corner store is no doubt harmless, but what about those people who hold consistent places in our lives who, in our heart of hearts, we know are not helping us live the life we want to live? Avoiding their company may be easier said than done. While I like to think my dedication is enough to move me forward, after some encounters with bad company, I do flail around a bit before finding my sense of excitement and direction again. Company matters.

Promising "monsoon" clouds gather over Santa Fe

Last weekend, I attended a yoga therapy workshop taught by my aunt Patti at High Desert Yoga in Albuquerque. A gifted yoga therapist and physical therapist, she described the yoga therapist’s role as walking into the unknown, accompanying your clients in the exploration of their injuries or shadows. As an exercise, she led us to explore one of our own problem areas with a partner.

I’ve had an ankle injury of unknown origin for over a year. It makes itself heard whenever I point my left foot to its furthest limit, so I’ve been avoiding that movement for quite awhile now. In this exercise, we were asked to move gently towards that injured part – and suddenly for me, all kinds of fear arose. I feared pain, I feared making the problem worse, I feared facing my body’s “failure” to heal. To avoid these fears, I had effectively cut off from that dark spot altogether. Frankly, I had no idea what was going on in there.

My partner Jill was undaunted. She asked questions of me, encouraging me to examine the flavor of the sensations in my ankle, the different sensations just before the pain kicked in, as well as the emotions I was feeling. She suggested minor changes in my movements, my breath, my thoughts, not because she knew what the result would be, just to explore, to learn with me.

By exploring together, we discovered that pressing down through my pinky toe pad while pointing the foot diminished the pain and increased my sense of support through the ankle. My fear had led me to cut off completely from the experience of my ankle, and thus from information that might help me heal. Jill simply brought a flashlight and pointed it in directions I was scared to see. Good company, I discovered, is willing NOT to know and patient enough to simply hold my attention to the present experience.

So often, those of us who step into the title of “teacher” feel we have to spread the light of knowledge. Here, I benefited from what I now think of as “the light of no knowledge.” It’s the light of companionship.

While keeping good company makes an individual great, being good company may very well make the world around us great.

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