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Getting worse is getting better

It’s now been just over a year since I returned to Australia and came back to my ‘normal’ life.  I arrived back with a whole lot of new learning, new perspectives and new goals about how I was going to live my life.  I was happy, relaxed and excited about what lay ahead of me.

It didn’t take very long, however, for all my old habits to start taking control of my life again. Before I knew it, I was taking on too much work, trying to do everything yesterday, worrying about whether I was doing enough, doing it right, moving forward.  One day I realised that I was right back on that roller coaster again… you know, the one that is exciting and fast paced, but goes around in circles in a kind of pointless way, and eventually makes you feel sick.  I was complaining about how busy I was to my partner, and how being busy was keeping me from doing all the things I wanted to do.  In reply she pointed out that being busy was a choice I made.  I chose to be busy.  I chose to fill my days with things that kept me from doing what I really wanted to do.  She pointed out that if I REALLY wanted to do the other things, I could choose to do them.  I was making excuses.  She was so right!

The other thing that started to happen soon after my return was that I became more and more judgemental of others.  I came back with my head full of Buddhist philosophy, with ideas of living a Boddhisattva way of life, and suddenly saw everyone around me was completely caught up in craving and aversion.  I tried to tell people what they were doing wrong.  I tried to tell them that there was a better way to be.  I judged them, I criticised them, I became frustrated with them. I forgot that a fundamental part of being a Boddhisattva was compassion.

Once I realised what I was doing, I started to judge myself.  How could I profess to be a changed person, to live a good life, and yet not be able to treat people with compassion?  I started to notice how I had a habit of thinking negative thoughts, how I was full of destructive emotions, how I was caught up myself in craving and aversion. And worse still, my meditation was going terribly.  I was still trying to meditate every day, but it was starting to feel like a chore.  I was unable to concentrate, unable to relax, and I convinced myself that I was no longer able to meditate.  I was a mess.

I was supposed to go to the Mind and Its Potential Conference in Sydney.  I decided that I had to cut down on all my activities and tried to cancel my booking. I wasn’t able to do so, but decided that I would stay home anyway.  In the end, I realised that I really wanted to go, and so off I went.  I’m so glad I did.  During the conference I had the great honour of participating in a workshop with Venerable Robina Courtin.  She is amazing.  She is a fast-talking, no-nonsense kind of woman, who is still very Australian, despite spending most of the last 30 years overseas.  She said something in passing that really connected with me and where I am right now.  She said something like:

“When you are really starting to get somewhere, you think you are getting worse.  You see bad stuff everywhere, you see bad stuff in yourself, you think you are the worst meditator in the whole world.  Lots of people give up at this point, it all seems too hard. But this is when you have to just sit there and get on with it.  Be with where you are, and it will pass.”

So here I go, starting again, beginner’s mind, and just getting on with it.


Comfort for control freaks

I’m the first to admit it.  I’m a control freak (as well as being a chronic worrier – actually I think the two are strongly related – I worry mostly about events that I feel like I have no control over)!

When we are young we feel like we have so little control over anything.  Our parents, our teachers, everyone else seems to have the power to control us.  As we get older, we develop a sense, and an expectation, of control.  We start to believe that we control our own destiny.  We set goals, we work towards them, and we achieve them.  Only, sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes, despite the best laid plans, despite all that hard work, despite the wishing and hoping and worrying, things do not work out as planned.

Sometimes we don’t get what we want.  Sometimes we don’t even get what we need.  And it’s really difficult to accept that some things are out of our control. We want explanations.  We want solutions.  We wallow in our misery, we drive ourselves crazy with our frustration.  We suffer.

What we frequently fail to realise, however, is that there’s absolutely no use trying to control the world outside, and also that there’s absolutely no need to suffer when the world throws something unpleasant our way.  This is because there is only one thing that we need to control in life in order to avoid suffering. This one thing is something that nobody else can interfere with, that will always go to plan if we really want it to.

This hit home to me recently, reading David Michie’s Enlightenment to Go (which, by the way, I highly recommend).

Quoting a passage from Shantideva’s “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”, Michie explains

the impossibility of trying to control everything in the world around us, contrasting it to the more manageable alternative of controlling the way we experience the world… What happens to us is actually less important than how we interpret it.

So I’m dusting off my clouds, polishing up their silver linings and reviewing the rules of The Glad Game.  Come on world, I’m ready for you, and I have a great big smile on my face!


“Now that all your worry has proved such an unlucrative business, why not find another job?” -Hafiz

I’m a born worrier.  I worry about everything.  I worry about things I did in the past, I worry about what I’m going to do in the future, I worry about what’s going on right now, I worry that I worry too much!

Invariably, all that time and energy spent worrying is a complete waste of time.  If it’s something that I have no control over, worrying is not going to make any difference.  If it’s something that I do have control over, I would be much better taking some kind of meaningful action rather than worrying about it.

When I was living in the temple, I hardly ever worried about anything.  I think that that was largely because during my time there, I had no control over anything.  It was a completely foreign environment, and the only way to survive was to just ‘go with the flow’.  I guess that things seem different out here in the ‘real world’ because I have the illusion of control.  I’ve already fallen back into that old habit of thinking that I am (or that I should be) in control of everything. Mostly when I worry it’s because I feel like I don’t have control over something, or I worry that I do have control but I can’t decide what is the right thing to do. Then I worry about being indecisive!

When I write it all down like this I can see the ridiculousness of it all.  But when you have spent a lifetime worrying, it can be a hard habit to break.  I’m trying to use Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation for dealing with my worry:

Breathing in, I know I have worry in me;
Breathing out, I know the worry will pass;
Breathing in, I calm the worry in me;
Breathing out, I know that I am strong enough to deal with this worry.

Although lately I’ve been worried that I haven’t been doing enough meditation…! I know, I know, time to stop worrying and just get on with it.  Send me some metta, but don’t worry about me, I’m going to be fine!

Stillness Buddy

A few weeks ago I downloaded some software called Stillness Buddy.  I was missing the times at the temple where every hour some chimes would sound, signalling everyone to stop what they were doing, close their eyes, and do one minute’s meditation.  I used to love those minutes of silence, when the click clack of the keyboards and the chit chat of the people would stop, and peace would fill the room.  When I left the temple and returned to Australia, I wanted to figure out a way to remind myself of taking these short mindfulness breaks, because I knew that in the business of my daily work I was going to forget them.

I discovered some software called Stillness Buddy that has been developed for exactly this purpose, especially for people who work at a computer all day.  It includes some mindfulness exercises of Thich Nhat Hanh, and a proportion of the cost goes towards setting up his new retreat centre.

I installed the software and for the first couple of weeks of work I loved the little mindfulness breaks.  As well as reminding me to be still and peaceful, they also reminded me to be conscious of my body and to stretch and correct my posture (inevitably crumpling towards my screen and keyboard).

Then I got busier and occasionally I would get annoyed when the break notification popped up and I was in the middle of doing something.  I started hitting the ‘escape’ key to cancel the break.  Then one day as I did this a notification appeared.  It suggested that instead of cancelling the break, maybe I would like to just be aware of the feeling that I had of wanting to cancel the break, and do the break anyway.  That really made me think!  I mean sometimes, if someone is in my office for a meeting, I do actually have to cancel the break.  But sometimes I was just cancelling it because I was in the middle of a furious race to finish something. It occurred to me that I was fast heading towards a sorry state if I couldn’t allow myself to take a one minute break every now and then in the middle of my work!  I decided that I had better be disciplined and do the breaks, regardless of how busy and rushed I was.  Sometimes I still have a moment of annoyance when the message pops up as I’m working, but very quickly I am learning to let that go.  I’m also learning to actually take the break and be mindful (ie. not spend the minute doing something else, superficially ‘productive’, while I’m waiting for the minute to pass and my computer to unlock itself).

Yes, I am the mistress of avoiding mindfulness!  Someone once informed me that I was not a human being, I was a human doing!  But I’m working on a new mantra:

Just BE it!


Karma cornucopia

For the last few weeks I have felt like I have been surrounded by more good karma than any one person deserves!  Life is good, great, wonderful in fact!  And good things keep falling into my lap!  I am meeting lots of wonderful people, I am doing lots of fun things, I’m healthy, I have more than what I need to be comfortable in life, and I have the opportunity to give back to lots of people in so many different ways!   Every day I wake up and I’m excited about the day ahead.

I have had a few moments this past week when something temporarily put a dent in my shine. But each time a minor miracle seemed to happen to make everything work out anyway.  Maybe they were just coincidences, but I like to think of them as little examples of karma in action!

Example 1: I missed a course that I really wanted to go on, and I was grumbling to myself about how I was going to find another one.  Then, minutes later, I got an email from a club that I had just joined a few days before, notifying me that they were offering free places on  a course coming up (a repeat of exactly the same course that I had just missed).  I replied, and got a free place!  Just-in-time-karma!

Example 2: I was feeling a bit anxious one day about having too many things to do. I was wishing that I hadn’t said yes to a lunch function that I really didn’t want to go to. Then, minutes later, I got an email from one of the organisers saying that she was really sorry but the lunch had been cancelled.  Problem solved!

I have started to wonder whether I’m just really lucky right now, or whether the fact that I’ve been happy and meditating regularly and sending out my good vibes to the world is what’s led to all this goodness coming back my way.  It also occurs to me that many of the things that are bringing me such joy have maybe been there so often before, but I just never noticed them before!

Little things do make such a big difference.  I’ve been bouncing around the place, grinning like an idiot, laughing in delight at trivial little things, and telling everyone within earshot how great life is.  This in turn has made people smile and laugh (maybe at me, but hey, it’s still an extra smile and a laugh they may not have had otherwise!) and be really friendly in return.  This morning when I went to get my coffee, the girl serving handed over my coffee and said “here you go, one coffee made with love”.  That made me smile all day!  I told my students about it when I got to class and I was raving on about what a lovely day it was and how blue the sky was and one of them said “I want some of whatever she’s on”! That made me laugh even more, and I told them “I’m just on meditation, and guess what… it’s FREE!  How cool is that?!”  They had to laugh.  And that’s how we started our day of class, with lots of people laughing.  Who could ask for more?!

I haven’t forgotten anicca, the fact that existence is about constant change, so I am living these good karma days with joy and gratitude, and with the awareness that they may not continue forever.  But for now, I’m living it up, and loving every moment, and sending my excess good karma your way!

Teach us to be still

I just finished reading this book.  It’s an autobiographical account of the author’s experience with chronic pain, and with medical practitioners who fail to come up with a clinical diagnosis or treatment for his mysterious condition.

Reading the first part of the book was an uncomfortable experience.  Tim Parks provides a very graphic and personal account of the problems he is having with his prostate and urinary system.  I found myself needing to go to the bathroom almost as often as he was, as my body kicked into some kind of psychosomatic empathy response!

In despair, Tim Parks puts his skepticism aside and explores a range of alternative therapies. He discovers a book on the internet by Doctor David Wise, called A Headache in the Pelvis.  In this book, the author learns of an activity described as “paradoxical relaxation”.  This is, in effect, a form of vipassana meditation, although the term meditation is not used until later in the book when Tim makes the connection and bravely signs up for a Vipassana Meditation Retreat.

This is the beginning of what is at first a very painful, but later a pain-free, new life.  As well as providing him with a way to manage, and eventually banish his pain, meditation provides Tim with the opportunity to reconsider many aspects of his life.

One major part of his life that resonated strongly with me, was his relationship with words.  He finds it hard to meditate, because his mind won’t stop talking; he can’t turn off the never-ending stream of words.

I hadn’t really seen a painting or a film (or a game of football, for that matter) until I had thought about it in words, or preferably talked about it, or better still written about it, in carefully organised, purposeful, self-regarding words. Then I possessed it. In this, I suppose, I was not unlike those unhappy people who haven’t really been on holiday unless they can show themselves the photos. The photos are the holiday, even when they’re on the beach, or in the bedroom. And if I never took a camera on holiday, it was only because I was doing the same with words. What mattered was not the experience itself, but the experience described. My notebook, my laptop. And when I wanted to understand something new, I bought the book, of course, or books. I taught myself, with a book. Like Manuel in Fawlty Towers – ‘I can speak English, I learn it from a book.’ When I travelled, there was a guidebook. I had faith in books. … One consequence of all this verbiage was that I never really appreciated that there could be hard mental work that did not involve words, work for which, on the contrary, words might prove an obstacle.

His meditation experience suddenly provids him with a level of insight into everyday things and their existence independent of words.

Everything was intensely itself, source at once of fascination and indifference.  Scattered crumbs, splashed milk. I gazed at them.  As in a Cézanne, each object had been set free from the mesh of human interpretation.  A cup beside a slice of melon.  Absolutely themselves.  I say the words now – cup, melon – but my mind at the time was wordless.  The cup, the melon were things without words, not in relation, not part of a sentence of a story. . . I looked at the young man across the table . . . he was holding a biscuit using a knife to smear it with pink jam.  It was too intense.  The jam was too pink.  The strong fingers too present.

As well as exploring the nature of experience without words, the book highlights how so many of us live our daily lives with a stark lack of connection between our minds and our bodies, and how we tend to constantly live in the past or the future and completely ignore the here and now.

The book is beautifully written and includes many literary references and lovely words for the bibliophiles!  I highly recommend it!

A stroke of insight

This is a video made by a brain researcher who had a stroke.  She describes her experiences in vivid and moving detail.  The really amazing thing about this is that the stroke essentially allowed her to reach and observe a state of what she calls “nirvana”, which I think is really similar to many peoples’ experience during meditation. Science meets dhamma!