Bodhi Mind Reflection
Amituofo Sangha. I offer my story of how my contentment and happiness have increased over the past nine years. I give every ounce of credit to my spiritual journey. It’s been a hard, slow, and painful journey so far. It includes periods of stagnation and even regression as well as progress. Things aren’t perfect yet – but they are much, much better.
First a reminder. Each of us is on our own, unique, spiritual journey. Personal causes and conditions – our karma – place us in this present moment with our specific combination of abilities, needs, aspirations, and resources. It’s my experience that it doesn’t work to follow another’s spiritual path. What’s required is to enter the spiritual forest and forge my own path. Even Lord Buddha, king among teachers, truly just points the direction – and gives us inspiration. So this is just MY story, not advice.
Quick bio. Pretty much all I do is work on my spiritual practice. I live alone, am not in a serious relationship, have excellent relations with my two adult children and ageing parents. My finances are sufficient. My health is good. I discovered spirituality during a catastrophic marriage explosion nine years ago. At that time, I was highly intellectual, emotionally retarded, physically fit, and lived in a spiritual wasteland thanks to my Catholic upbringing. I discovered Buddha Jewel monastery seemingly by accident during my divorce. I didn’t know anything about Buddhism. For several years, I spent a lot of time at the monastery. Took every dharma course that was offered, attended ceremonies, helped with maintenance, went to every onsite retreat, took the 3 Refuges and 5 Precepts, learned to put on my robe and how to prostrate. Many things I encountered at the monastery seemed odd or confusing to me (e.g. the Heart Sutra…hello!), yet I had a distinct sense there was something profound to it all. During those years I moved away from my toxic relationship environment. My spiritual journey was underway.
What followed has been an eclectic exploration of spirituality. I stopped visiting the monastery, I can’t recall why. I began to study spiritual teachings from a diverse group of teachers across the spiritual landscape: Buddhism, Hinduism, Shamanism, Christianity and some new-age stuff. I study the science of Western psychology as well as the philosophy of the East. I am more learned in Theravada Buddhism than Mahayana. No spiritual teacher I have ever encountered recommends this eclectic approach. Better to choose one discipline and deep dive. Oh well, I do what works for me. I’m just sharing my story.
And there’s my meditation practice which has also been all over the board in terms of technique and commitment. It’s just been the last two or three years that I have been reliably meditating half hour morning and evening every day. I also attend meditation retreats three or four times a year. This rigor has really helped me. Abbess Jian Yan Shifu once said, “You should meditate half hour every day unless you’re very busy…….then you should meditate an hour”. I’ve matured to understand how right she is.
The biggest shift in the quality of my practice is when I began to find ways to bring my spiritual practice into the ‘non-spiritual’ parts of my life. I’ve come to see that the separation between my practice and my ‘real life’ is not helpful for either. With the separation, my practice too often got left out because I deemed other aspects of my life more important.
Two slogans exemplify the root of my practice. What two?
- Know my mind just as it is
- Keep calmly knowing change
Abbess Jian Yan Shifu said it even simpler when she taught the ABC idea the first week of class. ‘B’ is ‘Being with it’.
There are five areas where I focus. Here are the five.
Effort. This is the fourth paramita Shifu taught us. She uses ‘diligence’ but we both mean the same thing: virya. Sloth and torpor is one of Buddhism’s five hindrances. I see these in me as my natural state. If I don’t very consciously exert effort, I will wallow in a spiritual treading-water state. I need to strive ardently; patiently but persistently. That being said, I’m reminded of Shifu’s story about the strings of a lute. Nothing causes more regress than when I apply too much effort in my practice. Then my string is too tight and breaks. It’s a balancing act for me, a constant challenge, to find that ‘middle path’ of effort.
Renunciation. I’m no monk. I have my sensual delights. Early in my practice I tried giving them all up – to great disaster. As I’ve matured in my practice, I’ve come to accept the more ‘middle path’ with my sensual delights – with my cravings and clinging. I use renunciation daily very strategically, making small commitments to lessening my attachments. I’ve found that’s the only way I can be successful. And I am, but progress is slow. Some attachments I even accept, at least for now. I wish I could do better in this area, but I can’t.
Speech. It pains me to notice how poorly I handle my speech. Intellectually, I totally get what I’m supposed to do. No lying, no gossip, no idle talk, speak only at the appropriate time, don’t speak with a twist, etc. But for some reason words come out of my mouth, or into my texts or emails, that are often not wholesome. I expend serious effort trying to correct this. It dismays me how I fall back again and again into ‘wrong speech’. I once shared with a teacher that I was struggling to remain silent during a 10-day retreat (which is required). He smiled and said, “Silence is easy….compared with right speech”.
View. This is my favorite area of practice focus. Shifu spoke about dualistic views and shared the story of the horse trainer – the man who said ‘maybe’ when his friends gave their view of situations. My nature is to hold on to my views very strongly, to be attached to my views. It’s as if I believe I have a phone line with God and have been imbued with ‘the Truth’. I have my views about my body, the environment, politics, society, finances, justice…..it goes on and on. Though it seems to me I determine my views after careful listening, rational contemplation, and deep analysis, this is not so. They are a result of prior causes and conditions and not ‘mine’ at all. Simon and Garfunkel song lyrics from The Rock: A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. I’m sure the Buddha would agree. More than any other reason, I see the cause of my discontent and unhappiness to be attachment to my views. It feels very liberating when I am able to let my views go. The Buddha once said in the Pali Canon (in the context of metaphysical speculation), “I hold the view that leads to no quarreling with others”. I really like that attitude.
Awareness. This is Shifu’s “A” in the important ABC idea she taught us, and it is key for my contentment and happiness. My monkey mind feeds me thoughts, completely without my permission and uninvited, and then through its clever means, can sweep me away for long moments or even hours at a time. This happens on and off the cushion. This is the most difficult part of my practice.
Here are some specific things I do or did to increase my contentment and happiness.
- Read Dan Harris’ 10% Happier book. He taught me it’s ok to have doubts, ok to be skeptical, ok to struggle – and that the fruits of the spiritual effort will come.
- ‘Meditate’ / Practice awareness while I am engaged in mindless activities of my life. When I am washing dishes, chopping vegetables, brushing my teeth, for example. When I am able to stay present during those kinds of tasks, I have brought my practice into my ‘real life’.
- Rent my home rather than own it. I was a home owner for decades and know the time and attention that takes. There are downsides to renting of course, but it is simpler and less distracting. This opens more space for my practice.
- Have a gong chime at random times. I use the website awakeningbell.org, and every 15-60 minutes it will sound a gong which shocks me into awareness if I’ve been swept away by my monkey mind.
- Write pithy sayings on flashcards. These are mostly sayings from spiritual talks or books, but I have some from Shakespeare (There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so), John Milton (The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven), and lots from Buddha Jewel (The fool adjusts the body, the wise adjusts the mind). I have amassed hundreds of flashcards and continue to add more. I flip through them instead of engaging in social media, news, music, or movies. I tape a fair number of them in places around my home: on my bathroom mirror, my refrigerator handle, my desk. My flashcards are an important aid in helping me stay aware.
- Shrink my possessions. Fewer things lead to fewer distractions. When I moved into my home I made this proclamation: I will not let anything cross my threshold that I don’t either need or have an attachment to. It took three months and the pleading of my son before I bought a microwave. If I add a book or a pair of pants, I will donate one I already have. I periodically walk through my home challenging myself to find ten things I can let go of. It’s not easy, but I feel lighter, freer; I carry less anchor.
- Listen to dharma talks. I used to listen to music or the news. Then I discovered the public library is filled with spiritual audiobooks. Youtube also has a zillion dharma talks. When I’m doing mindless tasks like cleaning or cooking, I have a talk playing. When I exercise, same. Most importantly, when I’m driving. I used to feel discontent and anger when I drove. Now I drive in the slow lane, give myself ample time to get to my destination, and seep myself in the dharma.
- Read spiritual books. Like listening to dharma talks, these are hugely helpful for my practice. I read a wide range of religious/spiritual authors as I said. I find a lot of the same ideas expressed from different perspectives, which is helpful. Where I find differences, I contemplate them which deepens my practice.
- Look for opportunities for solitude. The popular press and political science say we are social beings. I find great spiritual progress in solitude. Society it distracting for me.
- Attend meditation retreats. These hurt but are very helpful to me.
- Attend Buddha Jewel online course twice a week. Shifu offers our course twice each week. I attend both sessions whenever I’m available. I learn most during the second listening.
- Restrain my senses. For example, if I’m working on reducing my craving for sugar, I skip the cookie aisle while shopping in the grocery store. If I’m working on my lust, I don’t go to the beaches when I suspect beautiful bodies will be there. This is the primary way I make progress on renunciation.
- Consider repulsive aspects. In the example above, I may imagine myself as a diabetic or obese. I may focus attention on what human bodies look like just 1/8 inch under the skin. This is another tool that helps my renunciation practice.
- Eat attentively. Instead of distracting myself by reading, talking, or watching, I eat in silence trying to remain attentive to the sight, smell, taste, and texture of each mouthful of food I eat. If I am trying to restrain the quantity of food I eat, I attempt to stop eating “five mouthfuls before I’m full”.
- Study the famous Satipatthana Sutta. First taught to me by Shifu, it contains different techniques to raise awareness/mindfulness during meditation. This has helped my meditation practice more than anything else.
- Keep a Self-Discipline log. Each month I list the dozen or so behaviors I particularly want to focus on increasing, decreasing, or maintaining. My two meditation sessions are on the list every month. Same with exercise. Each day I put a smiley face or a frown next to each behavior. I’ve been doing this for years. It really helps me nudge forward.
And finally, I feel it’s important to mention that I’m not very good at my spiritual practice. I think I started too late in life – I have so much conditioning and such a rigid mind. Nevertheless, I keep this flashcard on my meditation cushion, read it, and move it twice a day when I meditate: “No matter how hard it is; no matter how long it takes”.