Faith and Freshness in the Practice

A few weeks ago I ran out of toilet paper and it was just after 10pm so I went to the liquor store on the corner of 26th and Church a few houses down from the small studio I was renting for the month in San Francisco. As I went to the counter to purchase my toilet paper there was an inebriated woman ahead of me and when she turned around my automatic reaction was to look her straight in her eye with a smile and send her waves of love and compassion from the depths of my heart. Five years ago my automatic reaction would have probably been to look away and think about how she was a drunk for a few seconds, forget about her and continue going about my business. This incident was just more experiential proof that dharma practice does change you and while I am far from being any sort of Buddha I’m a hell of a better person than I was ten years ago and authentic, genuine instances like this reinforce my faith, commitment and dedication to the path of transformation.

At the moment I’m at San Diego airport and just hours before I had left Deer Park monastery ( a practice center in Escondido in the tradition of my beloved teacher, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, poet, and Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. My retreat at Deer Park was the culminating event of close to two months of travel and my first extended trip to North America in four years. I’ve been living in India for the past four years and the purpose of this trip was to connect with individuals in the Mindfulness in Education field in the States and attend a Brain Development and Learning conference in Vancouver. The majority of my time was spent back to the Bay area, where I lived before I moved to India in June of 2006. In step with the usual occurrences of my life what has transpired in the past two months is usually what one would anticipate might happen over the course of 5 years but I’m embracing the birth of many new possibilities and doing my best to remain grounded in the present and remain true to my integrity while planting seeds for the future. As I sit here in a Starbucks attempting to gather my reflections and notes from my time in North America my heart is filled with gratitude, wonder and I’m just brimming with joy. I can’t help but smile to myself and laugh a little because the older I get the more I realize the importance of letting go and just riding the waves of the universe—she’ll take care of you if you let her and all you need to do is remain deeply connected to your heart. As I continue to water the seeds of “gratitude” and “letting go” life only seems to get richer.  I’ve been fortunate enough this summer to connect with countless sources of inspiration like Jon Kabat-Zinn, the monastic Brothers and Sisters at Deer Park, key individuals in the Mindfulness in Education field and I also had an opportunity to hear Bob Thurman and Marianne Williamson speak in New York. I managed to make countless new connections professionally and personally, the future of which will unfold in unimaginable ways I’m sure. But most importantly I spent time with beautiful friends and family some I haven’t seen in many years. These timeless friendships are what bring the most meaning to my life and I’m reminded of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s emphasis on mindfulness as relationality in Vancouver and my dear Dharma brother, Brian, who I met at Deer Park’s understanding of mindfulness as intimacy.

Three months before my 29th birthday I sat under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, heart wide open and eyes filled with tears of joy because I had found my path, and as obnoxious as this might sound, a sense of confidence that if the Buddha could do it I could too and my sole purpose in life is to try and bring happiness to all sentient beings and work towards a collective awakening. (I guess it’s fitting that the dharma name I’ve been given is “Pure Confidence of the Heart.”) I haven’t sought out my “path” but it found me and while I have a lot to learn and a long way to go there is no doubt that bringing mindfulness to education is what I’m meant to do with my life. But in the past months in the States before my time at Deer Park even though I was maintaining a relatively healthy lifestyle and daily meditation I was not nourishing my practice as well as I could and my last day in Vancouver I even had to ditch the brain conference and do a few hours of walking meditation to get in touch with the wholesome seeds within me and cultivate a sense of freshness in my practice.

This morning one of the elder Brother’s spoke about a talk my teacher had given this summer in Germany where he urged his students to “be in touch with the power and energy of the aspiration of your practice so it can light the fire of your heart” and support you in your practice. The power and energy of my aspiration was fully alive when I was under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya but during the past 18 months the freshness and vitality has definitely lessened. My time at Deer Park reinforced the importance of keeping that same degree of enthusiasm alive to support my practice. In a teaching once, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “When the Buddha was asked, ‘Who are you?’ He answered, “I am your freshness.” So why do we practice? To continue to be in touch with the freshness of our aspiration. But intention isn’t enough the elder Brother reminded us. We must also cultivate our capacity to drive that intention otherwise our mind can run interference and here is where the practice of mindfulness is crucial. Nowadays with Buddhism being very popular it is important to be careful about our consumption. He cautioned the importance of getting past reading and immersing ourselves in our practice—this is key because in the world there is more support for consumption than practice. Our actions of body speech and mind are our only true belongings and the ground in which we stand and we continue on in other through the way we live our lives.

At Deer Park we went back to the basics. At the core, mindfulness involves coming back to your breath and being aware. One of the Brothers said that the basic practice of mindful breathing is like singing/playing scales and this really resonated with me. It was also wonderful being in the space of individuals who were touching the Buddha Dharma for the first time. On my last day I met a wonderful young woman who had come to the retreat after being introduced to mindfulness through Dialectical Behavior Therapy but her therapist lacked grounding in mindfulness practice. Having had a few suicide attempts this young woman was suffering greatly and when we spoke her face was glowing and she told me that the retreat has helped her tremendously and now she really has an understanding of how mindfulness practice can transform one’s life. Through breathing we can hear our feelings. The breath is the anchor and by stopping (cultivating awareness) and looking deeply one can calm their emotions and body and understand their mind better and allow it to heal. In the age of multitasking it is also wise to remember as one of the Sisters reminded us, “We really cannot do more than one thing at a time moment by moment.”

Being a social person, while in San Francisco I thoroughly enjoyed connecting with individuals my age and had fun “going out” but I didn’t meet too many young people connected with the dharma but at the retreat there for more than 50 people under the age of 35 and this was so wonderful for me! When I took refuge with my root teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, I made a commitment to practicing mindfulness trainings which are a modern interpretation of the Buddha’s original 5 precepts (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, don’t take intoxicants) that a dharma sister at the retreat described as, “not commandments but an invitation to a better way of living.” It was a joy to be in the same space as other young people who have made that same commitment to have more awareness of how we live and reinforcement that true dharma practice is more a change in lifestyle and we do need to hold and protect our practice in order to help and serve others.

The Abbot spoke about how if you don’t know how your mind works then you will be ruled by it but if you know how your mind works then you can guide it.  When you are mindful you are mindful of something like an object or a mental occurrence and this is the heart of Buddhist meditation. In the Satipatthana Sutra the Four Establishments of Mindfulness involve the body, sensations which are either pleasant/unpleasant/neutral, mind (thoughts/emotions), dharmas (teachings).

Each of us has a little Buddha inside but sometimes we are cluttered by emotions and situations. It has been my experience that cultivating and strengthening this mindfulness energy allows myself to be more skillful (though I have a LONG way to go) in handling all aspects of my life. The Monastics reinforced that if you cultivate this energy and you have more concentration you are less pulled away by strong emotions.  The Abbot also spoke about right mindfulness which involves intelligence, selection and watering our good seeds and this contributes to the re-patterning I experienced when I encountered the inebriated woman when I was buying toilet paper.

The purpose of the retreat at Deer Park was to cultivate a culture of awakening. The present moment manifests the next moment and what we do now can create a better future. Cultivating a culture of awakening is also at the core of what Bob Thurman and Marianne Williamson spoke about in New York. Essentially it was a discussion about compassion in our time from the Buddhist view and a “Course in Miracles”. We suffer because of our ignorance. For example, our true enemy is not another person but rather, hatred and we must understand how to work with and transform that hatred. From the perspective of the “Course in Miracles,” the present moment is an endless eternity, reality is infinite and love is all that is. Our ego is the temptation to perceive without love and every moment we have a choice of whether or not we will give birth to fear or love. Miracles are an expression of love and arise from conviction and our job is simple: Bring love to the world.

At one of the world’s largest brain conferences I had the honor and privilege to introduce Jon Kabat-Zinn who pioneered bringing mindfulness into the mainstream and the most beautiful blend of researcher/practitioner I’ve ever met. He developed MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and in the past 30 years more than 18,000 individuals have completed this program at the UMASS Medical Center which consists of 3 formal practices of sitting meditation, body scan, mindful yoga and informal practices like mindfulness in everyday life using your breath to cultivate awareness and presence. A number of studies have supported the effectiveness of his program but research in this field is emerging. While at the brain conference in Vancouver my roommate, a Clinical Psychologist, and I wrote a short piece “Current trends in mindfulness research: Backing up the practice with science” that will be included in a few publications. Epigenetics (the alterations in gene expressions as a result of environmental influences) and neuroplasticity (the brain’s capacity to change, both in structure and function, as a result of life experience and volitional training) are two areas in particular that seem to support the benefits of mindfulness practice. When I introduced him at the brain conference I broke with tradition and invited the bell before he spoke in true Thich Nhat Hanh fashion. He actually used my meditation bell throughout his presentation to give the audience an experiential understanding of mindfulness. In his presentation he notes that awareness may be the final common pathway of what makes us human. Our whole education system refines critical thinking but where is the education that cultivates and refines awareness itself?

In Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, Jon writes, “It turns out that we all have, lying deep within us, in our hearts and in our very bones, a capacity for a dynamic, vital, sustaining inner peacefulness and wellbeing and fore a huge, innate, multifaceted intelligence that goes way beyond the merely conceptual. When we mobilize and refine that capacity and put it to use, we are much healthier physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And much happier. Even our thinking becomes clearer and we are less plagued by storms in the mind.”

Jon spoke about finding our true calling and a job that we would pay to do. I’ve found that. I know why I’m here and I deeply grateful. I feel incredibly blessed to have found mindfulness practice and to have complete certainty, faith and confidence in it. It is the verified faith in the practice that gives me the ease to continue moving forward with great uncertainty and a deep sense of wonder. I’ve always trusted my heart and lived to never have regrets. Within my first days of being back in the Bay area I knew with complete certainty that this upcoming year in India would be my last in this capacity. Knowing that it will be my last I can cherish each moment as the gift it truly is.