Monthly Archives: September 2015

Are you feeling out of balance in your life?

At the autumnal equinox, the midway point on the earth’s axis, night and day are the same length. It always makes me think of balance. But does that mean that the rest of the year the earth is out of balance? Of course not. And our lives don’t have to be out of balance just because everything in them is not equal. One of the major life skills we learn through the practice of meditation is equanimity, the ability to hold whatever arises in life without getting out of balance.

 

‘Where am I out of balance?’ is a question I ask myself if I’m feeling disjointed. I might realize that I’ve been over-efforting, with my ‘eye on the prize’ instead of being present in the moment as I do the work at hand. Or I might find I’ve been too sedentary. I do love to lounge but too much lounging leads to lethargy. Getting out for hiking or dancing lets me feel more alive and balanced. Maybe I’ve been tightly-focused in my thinking, going around in circles, and find balance in opening to take in a broader view. I might feel maxed out on being super social and need some alone time. Or vice versa. Each of us has different set points for activity, social engagement, etc. Where our set point is may change over time, but it’s useful to notice.

 

The body is attuned to balance and gives us lots of cues when it recognizes that our thought-emotion override button has been pushed once too often. What are some of the cues your body gives you? Aches? Illness? Restlessness? Tiredness? In mindfulness practice we are learning is to notice physical sensation. As we develop greater ability in this area, we can also develop better interpretive skills, and take the body’s message to heart. We might go for a walk, go to bed earlier, say ‘no’ to an invitation if we want to. We might say ‘yes’ to something that is outside our normal routine but somehow feels very right, if a little scary. As a Toastmaster, I felt myself and have witnessed many others take that first brave step to overcome the fear of attending a meeting or give a speech. I remember transitioning from believing that I was just naturally shy to overcoming a fear that was keeping me from so much I wanted to do in life. Taking that step was part of bringing myself into balance.

As we develop our meditation practice we also may find that we are less victimized by circumstances and better able to find a quality of equanimity regardless of causes and conditions. There are times in life when conditions are not perfect, when extra energy or extra rest is required. You’re up all night with a sick child, for example, and there’s just no rest possible. Or you are ill and resting is enforced by the fact that you’re too weak to rise. At these times it isn’t useful to be attached to the idea that in order to be happy you need perfect amounts of sleep or activity. Life does not always conform to these needs, does it? Making our own happiness dependent on certain conditions makes us ping pong balls in the game of life. Whack! In fact most of us have more stamina and fortitude than we ever imagined to do what we need to do when there’s no choice but to do it. If we lace our thoughts during this period with worry that we will suffer greatly from lack of rest or over-exertion, then we set ourselves up and fulfill our own expectations of doom. But, once that period is through, then we allow for a balancing rest instead of moving on immediately to the next crisis, making this frenzied way of being the norm in our lives.

We find a balance that is in tune with the body’s messages, based on what we’ve found fosters wellbeing, AND we accept that there will be times when a perfectly balanced schedule is not possible.

Finding balance at work is a challenge when the lines between work-time and off-time are blurred by the ease with which we can be reached at any hour of the day. We each make our own choices as to how available we will be. No job requires that we be on call 24/7/365. If you dispute that, talk to your supervisor. If you are your own boss, hire someone to give yourself regular respite, or simply define ‘off’ periods for yourself. The refreshed quality you bring to your ‘on’ times will more than make up for any delayed response. In fact, it is a gift to others to model this kind of balanced living. My neighbor is an in-demand author, speaker and consultant to Fortune 500 companies. She is her own boss and has no assistance. But she always claims set times for herself to garden, hike, cook and socialize. She has a balanced life. I was amazed when she told me she never checks email on weekends. There’s a big lesson in there: To be effective in our work role, we need to claim space that is totally free from it.

Meditation practice most definitely needs tech-free space. On retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, cell phones are left behind or deposited in a basket to be held by the retreat manager. There are no video or audio presentations, no radio or recorded music, only the pleasure of silence and the evening dharma talks of the teachers.  The retreat experience helps us to refine our home practice because it shows us the value of silence. Perhaps one of the reasons meditation has become so popular is that people find it so difficult to justify turning off their gadgets for any other reason. Our agricultural ancestors in the course of a day spent extended periods of time alone in nature, working or walking or riding. Inside any sounds were not funneled in on wires from elsewhere. It was quiet or there were homemade sounds. It’s in our genes to need that quiet downtime in our lives as well. We can enjoy our gadgets all the more when we give ourselves periods of time away from them.

One of the ways we enjoy our gadgets is through social media that our pioneer ancestors would certainly envy. We can stay in close touch with friends and family around the world. And we make new friends based on shared interests, finding communities of like-minded people with whom we can share ideas. It’s very easy (believe me!) to get a bit addicted to that sense of connection. But there’s another sense of connection that is worth noticing: When we open to the trees, the breeze, the birds, squirrels and lizards, the clouds, the creek, etc. all right there available to make us feel intrinsically a part of nature. Can we come fully present in the moment, whatever we are doing, bringing ourselves into balance by being here instead of mentally pulled all over the place? Finding balance is being skillful in how we use the technology we’ve been given, and knowing when to set it aside.

When we give ourselves space and time to be present and attuned to the body without distractions, we naturally come into balance. We come home to the joy that is inherent in being alive.

EXERCISE
If you feel a little addicted to your phone or computer, claim some more space for yourself:
  • If possible, turn the phone or the ringer off and put it in another room when you are sleeping.
  • Check email and social media at a planned time once or twice a day rather than all day long.
  • Consider taking a day or two off from it on a weekly basis.
  • Take a trip into nature and leave your phone off.
  • Tell friends and family you text with not to take it personally or worry if you don’t respond immediately.

If you never seem to have enough time to meditate or take a walk in nature or have lunch with a dear friend, maybe you are thinking of them as rewards, and that you don’t deserve them until you’ve accomplished something. If that’s the case then stop thinking of them as rewards. These are necessary. Claim time for them. Note them on your calendar, not as rare  treats or defaults but as locked in and important.

Notice physical sensation, not just in meditation but always. Let the wise body guide you to balance.

What are you cultivating in your life?

Cultivate is a very accurate and satisfying word for what we do in meditation. We cultivate spaciousness. We cultivate ease. We cultivate kindness and compassion.

There is a quality of patience with cultivating. You plant a seed and trust that with regular watering something will happen. There is no immediate expectation. The process involves us but is not completely a product of our will. We are tapping into the nature of things. It is the nature of things to grow. It is within our nature to be peaceful, to have more clarity in our minds and more compassion in our hearts.

At the beginning of a sitting practice, it can be useful to identify this activity of ‘cultivating spacious ease’. Yes, it is an activity. Meditation is not completely passive, although it may look that way, and sometimes it may feel that way. We actively develop wise intention: to be present in this moment and to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover we haven’t been present at all. We develop wise effort: that easeful balance where we are relaxed but alert. We are alert but receptive. We open to the generous sunlight of awareness and allow it to grow wisdom within us.
I have been finding that the phrase ‘cultivating spacious ease’ helps me to develop balanced effort. Perhaps later in the meditation I might find myself lost in thought. If the thoughts are judgemental, I might use the phrase ‘cultivating kindness’ or ‘cultivating compassion’. Notice how different these are from ‘I should be kinder,’ ‘I should be more compassionate,’ or ‘What a mean rotten person I am.’ Cultivating these qualities accepts that I am not necessarily being kind or compassionate right now, but I am cultivating those qualities and with steady attention and patience they may grow within me.
Cultivation also allows for the unknown to be present in our meditation. In the garden we may cultivate seeds of one flower only to discover later, after the leaves and petals show up, that it is another flower entirely. Can we have enough spacious ease to welcome the flowers that bloom within us, whatever kind they are? In our lives we may think we know what we need, what will make us happy, what will make us feel fulfilled, but the truth is we don’t have all the answers. Can we live in the questions themselves? Can we dance in the mystery of life? Our desire to have everything locked down, named, numbered and filed alphabetically, doesn’t really suit the natural way of things. We may think it makes us more secure, but it’s a ruse. Believing ourselves to know anything for sure only guarantees a more painful falling apart when it turns out differently from what we so firmly believed.
Cultivating spacious ease makes room for wonder in our lives: Both the questioning kind of wonder and the awestruck kind of wonder. Cultivating spacious ease makes room for our buddha nature, our own access to universal wisdom, to whisper its truth to us in our most quiet, relaxed and attentive moments of meditation. In that moment it might name the seed we are planting in the nourishing space we have created through our practice.
We are always cultivating something in our lives, aren’t we? It’s useful when we are in distress to ask ‘What am I cultivating here?’ Sometimes we are cultivating fear. We are using that hoe to dig up a lot of dirt! In that realization we might take the time to pause, access compassion and awareness, and plant the seeds that will nourish us.

Three Supports Needed for a Balanced Happy Life

Divorce's three legged-stool is honesty, courage, and resilienceWhen we sit in meditation, there are three points of support: the buttocks and two knees, if sitting on a cushion on the floor, or the buttocks and two feet if sitting in a chair. This is the triangle that provides full support to sustain our practice. In Buddhism, there are three supports as well:  The Buddha, the dhamma and the sangha. They work together and all are equally important. Traditionally these three are called the Three Refuges or the Three Jewels or Triple Gem. Both these feel true when you are already familiar with them. When you know the comfort and clarity they provide, you want to take refuge in them. When you are fully present with them in a balanced way, they radiate like jewels. But for beginners to understand them, I like to present them as supports because starting anything new, we need all the support we can get!


Let’s explore each a little more fully:

Buddha means awakened, and there is always some core part of us that is awake. It is often hidden under layers of dust, ignored as we chase after and run from the Eight Worldly Winds. Our buddha nature, that wise balanced presence, is accessed through regular meditation practice, where we cultivate spacious ease and compassion for ourselves and all beings.

Dhamma (aka dharma) is the wisdom shared by the Buddha and other awakened teachers throughout human history. The dhamma is also taught by the forest, the sea, the hills and all the inhabitants who live in harmony with the natural way of things. We listen to the dhamma, we observe the dhamma, and we are inspired to insights into our own nature. We come to a deeper more compassionate understanding of life.

Sangha is the community of meditation practitioners who support each other in our practice and in our lives. When everyone around us is living a distracted life, it can be very difficult for us to choose a different course. When we come together on a regular basis with people who share our intention to meditate and live mindfully, we are inspired to keep this practice of meditation a regular part of our lives and to live authentically from a sense of connection with all beings. We are reminded why we love the practice and how much it means to us. (I always extend my sangha to include anyone who supports me in my practice, even if they are not meditating themselves. In our class, most of the women have mates who do not meditate, but all are supportive of it because their wives are so much happier.)

Are you enjoying the benefits of all three of these supports of buddha, dhamma and sangha? Are you finding refuge in them? Or are you forgetting one or more of them? Perhaps you have had glimpses into your own buddha nature, but have not set the wise intention to practice meditation to cultivate spacious ease so that you are operating from that buddha nature rather than being tossed to and fro in life, trying to be all things to all people.

Or perhaps you have a regular meditation practice, but it is dry for you. Is there enough dhamma in your life? (Not drama! Dhamma!) Are you reading, listening or attending dhamma talks? Are you taking quiet strolls in nature, pausing to notice what wisdom is there?

Or perhaps you listen to talks online or read books, and are inspired to practice, but have no sense of community, no one to answer questions that come up and no feeling of support in your practice.

You can see how the buddha, the dhamma and the sangha all work together to make a balanced lifelong practice that brings joy, ease and balance to your life.

If chanting is part of your preferred practice, here is the traditional Pali chant for taking these three refuges:
Buddham saranam gacchami (I go to the Buddha for refuge)
Dhammam saranam gacchami (I go to the Dhamma for refuge)
Sangham saranam gacchami (I go to the Sangha for refuge)