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The other day I went to a day retreat that included four to five hours of meditation. A couple of things caught me by surprise. First, apparently I can barely walk! I have memories of dancing so lightly from rock to rock down creek beds that made it seem like level ground. Ok, I was much younger then, but I’ve usually had a reasonable sense of balance. Yet, when doing walking meditation – which is new to me – I couldn’t seem to stabilize. I would step down at various paces and wobble. Friends have reassured me that it’s just something new to my body and that it will adapt. Really? After almost 55 years of walking, this is new? Ok if you say so, I’ll remain hopeful.
As the day went on, physical aches and pains came and seemed unwilling to release. So much so, that by the last sit, the sharp stabbing pains in my back were intense. This was a bit puzzling to me since I can sit on the exact same cushion at home for one to two hours without a problem. Plus, during the retreat we alternated between sitting and walking, so the stages were under an hour each until the last one. When I settled in for the final hour, I decided to take a different meditative approach.
That is when the second insight came. Well, maybe more like a silly cartoon. I have heard an Ajahn (monastic teacher) say that he could tell which new monks would make it for the long term based on whether they could laugh at themselves. I am blessed – or cursed – with the ability to keep myself amused by attempting to maintain a sense of humor and not taking myself too seriously… or at least trying to. Internally, I am usually the butt of my own jokes.
For me, reflection and insight seem to come naturally. It’s just something that I have embodied from a very young age. It’s probably the most significant reason that I was able to keep growing and practice on my own for most of my adult life. What I struggle with is cultivating deep abiding stillness. Reflection requires a different type of energetic attention than stillness. In some ways, it’s “doing” which I am more comfortable with internally. But, that can also lead to grasping if it’s not balanced with stillness.
When I started the retreat that day, I decided to focus on cultivating stillness. However, by the last sit I realized that the sharp stabbing pains were going to make an hour seem like a long time. So, I decided to do what comes more easily, reflect. For me the time goes quickly when I do, so I admit to an ulterior motive that wasn’t very wholesome or skillful. Yet, it was appropriate given what my body was manifesting.
I asked myself: What is underneath the pain? In other words, why is my body responding in this manner? I thought that I had been doing fine otherwise, so it’s just the physical that I was struggling with. Ha, way to go trickster, if that was true, then I wouldn’t be having any issues with the pain! It would simply be, and I would be observing it without creating any suffering. So much for that rationale.
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I focus on the actual pain. Again, I ask what the root of it is. Immediately, my mind starts bouncing around with distractions. Including a No Doubt song: “In my head, it’s only in my head.” Well, that is certainly true. Interesting, I realize that my mind is creating a defensive response to my inquisition. Gee, I imagine there must be something really unattractive at the root of all this. I can be pessimistic when it comes to my suffering in that I assume that the cause is always something negative and unpleasant.
Ok, brace yourself, prepare to dive, here we go…. Then it hits me. What?! It’s not pain, it’s JOY!!! I wanted to laugh out loud (not considered polite etiquette when meditating with others including three monks!). So, I chuckled on the inside. What a knucklehead. Leave it to me to have swept joy and happiness under the rug for so long that it was actually causing tension, and painful tension at that.
I’ve written before about how much my life has changed in a positive manner over the last year. My body’s reaction is a firm validation that it is time to let go and surrender to the joy and well-being that I am so fortunate to be experiencing at this juncture in my life. Joy and happiness cannot be cultivated by sweeping them under the rug any more than stress can be alleviated by denial and delusion. Awareness of joy is as crucial to happiness as facing pain is to freedom from suffering and stress.
May we all bring joy out of the closet and to the forefront of our lives!
© Sallie Odenthal 2013
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It’s a beautiful sunny day (not all that common in the Pacific NW) ripe with suggestions of an approaching spring. As the awareness of winter soon coming to an end sinks in, I find myself reflecting on the past year. It was about this time last year that I started going to a Buddhist center. I had absolutely no idea what that would mean or how – or even if – it would change my life. It did: In a big way!
Prior to walking into Portland Friends of the Dhamma last March, I and my husband had zero experience with a Sangha (Buddhist community) or monastics. It was a bit like landing in a foreign country and barely speaking the language. There was a lot we had to learn (and still do!) regarding boundaries, language, etiquette, and so on. What is fascinating to us is that we both just took to it like ducks to water. There was a comfort and familiarity that propelled us forward. In spite of my neuroses trying to convince me otherwise, it seems like coming home. A new home that may be unfamiliar yet is filled with joy and gratitude.
In some ways, we just jumped in the deep end before we could give ourselves the opportunity to question or doubt. For example, the next thing we knew we were headed to California. We did a daylong retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and then went to Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery for four days. Given that staying at a monastery includes following the monastic’s schedules (like hiking up a steep hill in the dark at 4:30 AM for morning meditation!) and certain rules (like the eight precepts), this was really unfamiliar territory. We laughed at ourselves wondering “we’re doing what!?” Yet, it all went wonderfully, and we both were extremely comfortable with the experience. I was very pleased to know that the roots of the center that we were attending were deep, solid, and reflective of the integrity that we were experiencing there.
Our visit to Abhayagiri motivated us to take advantage of the small branch that is nearby. Pacific Hermitage Monastery gives us the opportunity to have direct and up close contact with the three monks that reside there. We expanded our experience to include half day retreats lead by the abbot, helping with a community work day, and doing meal offerings.
Committing to regular support of Pacific Hermitage is not necessarily a small thing in terms of personal risk. Especially since I started doing meal offerings alone which can be intimidating in spite of how incredibly gracious the monks are. It is an excellent opportunity to practice with grounding, anxiety, and insecurity. Oh joy. Fortunately, it is also a wonderful occasion to experience the generosity of service – giving and receiving – that transcends the personal. Offering food and material items is meaningful because it supports the creation and sustainment of the Sangha. It serves the greater good and community at large. Consequently, it’s not personal.
As winter approached, I realized that there is a seasonal shift for the Sangha as well. The monastics go into winter retreat and the community itself seems to recede a bit. There is the opportunity to do meal offerings at the Hermitage, so I take advantage of that and maintain contact. Also, the season has prompted me to expand my participation with the center. For me, opening to more personal contact with the lay people at the center can be more intimidating than interacting with the monks. We do participate fully. Last year, we attended every monastic event (which was rich and abundant!) including tea time and helping with a major event for the Hermitage in White Salmon from set-up to clean-up. We also consistently attend most Friday night meditations and classes every other Sunday. But, that is not the same as one on one, or small group, interactions. So it is that I jump into the unknown again.
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What does all this mean? My life has changed! Having direct access to teachers and instructions has deepened and broadened my practice tremendously. After having been self-directed for 30 years, I am filled with continual gratitude for the Sangha. For me, a year with the Sangha is like five years on my own. With the support of people – monastics and lay – I flourish more easily. I can finally rest in the awareness that my path is of value. Kindness is recognized, appreciated, and mutual; for that alone, I am eternally grateful.
As I look forward and continue to embrace the unknown, I am filled with hope and promise for greater peace and understanding. My commitment deepens both to my practice and the Sangha. I am able to serve in a manner that allows my soul to take the lead. It has been an interesting year, and I know that the year ahead will continue to push the envelope of my experience.
I invite you to stay tuned as I continue to seek out unfamiliar and unknown territories….
© Sallie Odenthal 2013
On multiple occasions I’ve heard teachers refer to “controlling” the mind. Control is a word and concept that I struggle with. It rubs me against me and feels coarse. So, when it came up in my meditation, I welcomed the opportunity to examine my relationship with issues of control more closely.
Encarta Dictionary defines control as: to exercise power or authority over something; to operate something; to restrain or limit somebody or something. And, there it is: the idea that relates to restrain, limit, and power-over. I find authoritative behavior distasteful, so it’s no surprise that I resist what feels like control. When projected externally, an attempt to power-over and control can easily create abusive behaviors. Inwardly, we can become our own tyrants through self-mortification and bullying ourselves into believing that our doubts, fears, and insecurities are reality.
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If so many respected teachers are suggesting that we control our mind states, then there must be some redemptive quality to control that I missed. I think the confusion comes from blending controlling behaviors with an attempt to operate or regulate something. The image of a volume dial came to mind. Instead of seeing control as an absolute that implies force and disempowerment (like a power on/off switch), maybe it’s simply an option to quiet or amplify what’s going on in the mind. There may even be other choices like how much bass or treble we use to fine tune the sound. For that matter, we can even change the station!
Underneath the notion that we can learn to control our minds is the reminder that we always have choice. For me, the idea of controlling behavior suggests that I have no choice, or at minimum that my choices are limited based on an imbalance of power. Externally, another being may be trying to manipulate me or vice versa. Internally, some aspect of my ego or neuroses may be attempting to trick me into thinking that I am weak and unworthy.
When I open to control as it relates to operating something, I create space for a broader view. The issue of impending threat and disempowerment become transformed with empowering options. The blinders come off, my vision expands, and new opportunities are allowed into my awareness. If I feel backed into a corner, I can find a way out. I can escape the illusion that comes with narrow vision and open the doors to what else is present.
There is another underlying aspect to control. It relates to responsibility. Even if I let go of all the preconceived notions and conditioning that relate to power and control, I am still faced with the reality that I – and only I – have the ability to respond appropriately. Yikes, it’s so much easier to deflect responsibility when being powered-over. It may be unpleasant, but hey, maybe it’s not really my fault. Delusion can be downright entertaining if we maintain humor. None the less, it can be daunting to embrace the idea that we have the ability to control our mind states given the consequences of that reality.
That leads me to what started this reflection: Trust. Do I trust myself? What does that mean and how does that affect my self-confidence? Realizing that I am responsible for my mind states, moods, and thoughts is nothing new to me. Having it reinforced that I can teach myself how to control my mind is somehow different. I guess the reality lies in understanding that I can learn to operate the vehicle in a more precise and skillful manner.
I think that our bodies, lives, and incarnations are a vehicle to express our soul, divine, all that is, or whatever you choose to call it. So, it makes sense to me that learning how to operate the machinery is attainable, teachable, and desirable. I feel fortunate to have found resources that provide instructions. For that, I am grateful to the Buddha and his teachings that show us how. I am appreciative to so many teachers that bring the Dhamma to life, and to the community that supports the everyday reality that we can ease our suffering.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what term I use. We choose whether to restrict or feed thought, feelings, energy, and mind states. For me, the important thing is to stay open. When I remind myself that I am simply learning to drive, I can focus on the process which I call my practice. I can lessen the pressure that motivates me to slam on the brakes, make a wrong turn, or floor it. I silence the honking horns and ease away from congestion and traffic towards the calm of a quiet country road.
© Sallie Odenthal 2013
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This morning, I was investigating the motivation behind some of my habits that are rooted in diversion. Initially, the usual suspects came to mind: self-doubt and lack of confidence in my abilities and worth. Yet, that just didn’t carry the energy that can lead to letting go and transformation. I knew there was something undiscovered that I’ve been trying to excavate for a long time.
A common thread in Buddhist teachings refers to: Do no harm. Embodying the intention to not harm another being was a guiding principal in my life long before I had ever heard of Buddhism. So much so, that I can trace my intention to not harm another as far back as I can remember. Even when I was very young, I couldn’t relate to jealousy, holding a grudge and ongoing ill will for another. I’m not suggesting that I’ve been skillful at it. But, I can say that the foundation of my lifelong pursuit of personal growth is firmly planted in trying not to influence another with my presence, existence, or experience in any harmful manner. I’m grateful for what seems like an intuitive ethical standard that was fully supported by my upbringing. However, I don’t think that I understood the significance of taking this particular – albeit healthy and wholesome – volition too far.
My desire was (and still is) to not project my insecurities and neuroses onto others or the environment. As with most things in life, we can take something to heart so strongly that it births unwholesome or unwanted consequences. Consequences that create habits and defensive patterns of reactivity that can happen so quickly we’re not even conscious of the choices we are making. Even when we do admit that we’re making a choice, we can still suppress the reason why. Then, it can be all too easy to deny the rationale behind our decisions and prevent us from recognizing the suffering that we are creating – both for ourselves and for others.
Defenses are created to avoid pain and suffering, so denial frequently goes along for the ride. Denial that can lead to excuses like: I just don’t know what to do with my life, I’m confused, I’m tired, and I’m simply not motivated. The suffering that is birthed from that line of reasoning is a continual oppression of my creativity, kind heartedness, and patience. I can give up before I even try to start.
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How does this apply to corrupting a good intention of not doing harm? I think that an aspect of my psyche thought that if I kept myself hidden away and isolated that I would be safe – or at least greatly minimize – my potential to harm others. I can see the neurotic reasoning gently unfolding as my subconscious rationalized my behavior. When others blamed me for how they were feeling, I believed them. I internalized what was being projected as my own. So, it’s not surprising that eventually some aspect of my ego thought that it would be easier to just avoid attention and interactions with others in an effort to not contribute to another’s suffering.
In an effort to be fair and kind with myself, I have to admit that it’s not all that startling given my resilient karmic theme that relates to a lack of support. The naivetés of youth can easily translate feelings of rejection into a belief that there is something wrong with “me.” So, I took on a challenge with gusto: change yourself, grow, and eventually, you will be liked, appreciated, and accepted. Yeah, well, I’m still waiting for that one…. Not!
Fortunately, my genuine efforts to heal were extremely fruitful. As I shed layers of my delusions, I found inner peace and began to value my way of being. I did my best to walk my talk, live my intentions, and surrender to an expanded awareness that reached beyond a single lifetime and human experience. Maybe that sounds a bit esoteric, but it is what kept me dedicated and moving on my path.
Even though I still struggle with habits of diversion, and most likely will be for the rest of my life, I am hopeful. I cannot deny that my life has been surprising, especially this last year. Surprises that triggered anxiety and fear, birthed joy and well-being. I still am confused and unsure, but I also know that those are simply reactions; not who I am. I let go and surrender. I can gently reassure myself that it’s safe to explore more experience with others and expose myself for who I am and who I am not. My intention to not harm may not always manifest in skillful behaviors, but I can trust that well-being will prevail. I gather my courage and step out into the world.
© Sallie Odenthal 2013
Often there are concepts that we understand intellectually. Yet, in my experience there is a significant difference between understanding and knowing. The difference can be subtle. I can sense and feel – almost on a cellular level – when something has really sunk in. It’s a simultaneous release and expansion. As I allow my awareness to experience deeper levels of knowing, I open to additional layers of energy that I may not have perceived before.
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Recently, I have begun to recognize how much I can limit my perceptual awareness of what energies are available to me. If I am tired, it rarely occurs to me that I may have reserves of energy tucked away from my awareness. It’s easier and more familiar to just stick with whatever is presenting: low physical energy, diversion, stress, and the usual suspects that feed suffering. It may seem like that is all that’s there – whatever diversionary tactics that I’m utilizing at the moment whether external or internal – but, that is simply not the case. Reality is not something that can be summed up by such limited factors and boxed in.
One of the things that I try to remind myself of is: Regardless of what is taking place, how stressful or deluded I may be feeling, or how tired I am, there is always calm abiding and happiness available as well. It may seem like it’s buried so deep that it can’t possibly be accessible, but it’s there. Sometimes we have to look in unexpected places. I am realizing that those unexpected places are within my own being and that they do exist even when my ego tries to convince me otherwise. Within everything that I am thinking, feeling, or experiencing, are energies and experiences that I am completely unaware of. Energy that is available to me at any given moment.
What’s interesting to me is how quick and easy it can be to sabotage the healthier and happier feelings. It’s almost like happiness sets off threatening sirens which foster a lack of trust or grasping to hold onto it. Instead of nurturing the energy of well-being and peace, our neuroses can steer us back to the familiar suffering.
What I find ironic is that it seems that the opposite is true for suffering. Gee, that’s familiar, let’s just keep this up. Who needs to be happy? That will just irritate and annoy people. It’s funny and sad at the same time. So much so, that I can find myself questioning whether I really want to be happy. If I’m making choices that steer me towards suffering, then I wonder: What is the matter with me!? Do I really want to be happy? Fortunately, I can recognize that construct as delusion, but that doesn’t always translate into healthier choices.
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Expanded awareness can help us to reframe. What once was a limited view can broaden to allow for more choices, resolution, and resolve. Instead of disempowering ourselves by giving into the energy that we’re most aware of, we can realize that we’re wearing blinders or at least really dark glasses. Unlimited potential is present in every moment. There may be times when the best we can do is simply remind ourselves that there is more going on than we are leading ourselves to believe. Remembering that alternative energies and states of mind are present – even if we can’t find them – can encourage us to keep the door to our mind, heart, and body open.
Just because we aren’t looking, doesn’t mean that something isn’t there. Distraction and diversion are not enough to obliterate the potential for well-being. When I seek undiscovered ways of being, I open to the possibilities that the unknown present. I lift my head up and look around by recognizing I’m nodding off. I try to wake up in spite of thinking that I do not have the energy (or for many people the “time”) to admit that I’m asleep. I acknowledge that I am making a choice every moment of every day even when I am behaving automatically. Accepting that helps me to weave reality into a dream state. Maybe then I can find hidden reserves.
All of the above may sound familiar and not especially creative or enlightening, and I would agree. For me, it’s the layers and subtleties of my practice that let me know I am growing, healing, and moving towards that which my soul seeks: The cessation of suffering. In spite of my neuroses trying to convince me otherwise, I foster faith and trust in my ability to make healthier choices and cultivate abiding in well being. Even when interrupting the suffering seems like too much of a challenge to face, I know that doesn’t mean that is all there is. I know that there is energy available that I simply haven’t found yet.
May you find you find well-being in the discovery of energy within.
© Sallie Odenthal 2013