Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Thoughts: Awareness - Insight - Action

      As we look around today’s world, especially those of us who are over 60, we see our planet’s inhabitants and natural resources in peril now more than ever before, and, quite rightly, it causes many of us great concern.  It’s downright discouraging to see what our children and children’s children are inheriting.  There’s an old expression that seems quite appropriate here:  wake up and smell the roses.  We can do something.  After all, the perpetuation of inhumanity, the destruction of the environment, the decimation of wildlife, and the intolerable wars, just to mention a few, need to give way to a new dawning of awareness, insight, and action. 
      In fact, if we, the majority of humans, weren’t entrapped by our own ignorance and grasping for self, we might be more interested in looking inside ourselves for the solutions we need in today’s world.  This introspection, if we take a tip from some of the most visionary leaders in history, is not unusual.  When faced with great adversity, they stopped what they were doing, became quiet, contemplated or listened for something in themselves, and then resolved whatever issue they were facing.  A good example of one who used such capability is Mahatma Gandhi.  Therefore, instead of doing what we usually do when confronted by real difficulty (looking outside of ourselves for the answer), we would be far better off if we took the alternative route of going inside.      
      Actually, if we were to look inside ourselves for the solutions we need in life, we might well consider using the methods of insight meditation.  Consisting of three basic techniques, it’s becoming ever more popular in our western world although it’s more commonly known as mindfulness practice.  First, we learn to heighten our ability to concentrate, which most people would agree is important.  For example, in tasks such as performing surgery, racing cars, making decisions, and taking professional exams, being able to focus is of paramount importance.   Next, we continually develop our skill in being mindful of our senses, thoughts, emotions, actions, and reactions.  Last, we practice loving kindness or compassion, first with ourselves and then with others.
      Ultimately, if we were to actually practice insight meditation, we might come to realize that none of us are independent of one another.  Although, as hard core individualists in western society, we may ask, “What do you mean that none of us are independent of each other?  Haven’t we all been taught to be independent—that dependent is almost a dirty word?”  Just think about it, though.  Hardly any country in the world has more than a 90 day food supply!  Don’t we rely on farmers and ranchers to provide us with our cuisine?  And don’t they trust us to pay them?  That’s certainly an interdependent relationship, isn’t it?  Such interdependence also stretches into transportation, clothing, housing, and other areas.  Moreover, according to our scientists, such as physicists, there’s nothing solid on this planet or in the universe and thus another reason for why none of us are independent of one another.  Is it any wonder then that such things as long distance healing, clairvoyance, and other forms of nonverbal communication exist.  It seems evident that we could begin to realize all sorts of truths if we dropped the notion that we’re independent of each other.
      Indeed, if we were to experience such a reality, we might begin to understand the true sense of humanity.  The more we practice insight meditation, the more it’s possible to realize that listening to and taking care of the suffering parts inside ourselves helps us to heal or recuperate our humanity.  With such an understanding comes not only a basic loving kindness for those parts of ourselves that need attention but also for those around us who are suffering.  Thus, we learn that true, compassionate acts can only begin when we’ve learned compassion for ourselves.  And in that act of extending loving kindness, we realize that others are no different than we are.
      In fact, if we understood this essential truth of humanity, we might commence to take many more acts of compassion in behalf of our fellow humans, animal brethren, and world environment.  Convening world conferences at the highest level to actually find ways from a position of inner peace to arrive at the same point with one another, and to help each other reduce the suffering among nations would begin.  Organizations like the United Nations might actually become real.  Cooperation between communities, states, and countries would develop avenues for eliminating the extinction and the anguish we find so commonly occurring in wildlife.  And worldwide projects would sincerely begin to save the forests and jungles, clean the air, and eliminate the deluge of waste found in our world’s oceans. 
      It goes almost without saying that if we were much more compassionate with our fellow humans, animal brethren, and environment, the level of suffering in this world would drop dramatically.  We would see the areas of the oceans now filled with refuse occupied by ships from all nations picking up waste to be used for something beneficial to humanity not yet discovered.    Taking sincere, benevolent action to rid world hunger, based on mutually developed plans between countries, would be accomplished without corruption, envy, or hatred.  The forests and jungles would begin to expand again while wildlife would be free to roam therein because no poachers or other types of illegal hunters would be there to kill them.  The dissipation of sadness, hatred, and anger would be self evident.
      Consequently, if the level of worldwide suffering via these actions dropped dramatically, the degree of happiness and compassion in and by humans for people, animals, and nature’s environment would rise dramatically.  Just as we experience peace inside ourselves when we are happy and well, our external lives would also undergo the same metamorphosis as a result of a non-harming world.  The level of fear we observe in wildlife due to humans would begin to disappear.  Stepping into a forest, one would hear the radiant songs of birds that are now so often nonexistent.  Children would be able to walk alone or with classmates to school again instead of having to be accompanied by parents, and women could walk peacefully in their neighborhood streets at night. 
      However, many of those who have never experienced real awareness and insight through meditative  introspection, after reading the above hypotheses, would probably say they’re a myth or wishful thinking and not worth carrying out.   And those of us who are seasoned in mindfulness practice and know the extreme challenge of overcoming ignorance and self grasping might agree on some levels.   On the other hand, we have an intimate knowledge of the value of looking inside ourselves, and we’ve felt motivated by small realizations, enough so that we’ve glimpsed just a touch of the truth that nobody is independent—that we’re all interdependent.  Thus, we continue on with the faith of realizing the complete truth.   As mentioned above, we know that if such a degree of happiness and compassion in and by humans for people, animals, and nature’s environment came about, this planet just might survive.   In conclusion, to support the realization of this dream, it makes sense to engage ourselves in reducing suffering while fortifying our efforts in this endeavor by cultivating an ever-growing practice in concentration, mindfulness, and loving kindness.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Saving Our Planet's Wildlife

      While humanity seems to have developed an affinity for its pets, a large percentage appears to care nothing for the world’s wildlife.  Rampant examples of such inhumanity abound worldwide in the poaching of elephants, gorillas, and rhinoceroses; the careless slaughter of small, wild animals; and the destruction of forests and jungles which are home to most wildlife.  It seems obvious that a majority instead of a minority of the world’s people need to make their voices heard if these creatures are to be saved.  However, if humanity’s awareness for the preservation of wildlife were to be enhanced, it would behoove us to deepen our own compassion and understanding for these creatures before attempting to foster such consciousness in others.
      For example, let’s start with a wild animal that fascinates us, raises a feeling of fondness within us, and gives us a sensation of joy whenever and wherever we see it.  In my own experience, it’s the family of gray squirrels that live in the wooded gorge not more than a hundred yards from my home here in Mexico.  Every time I leave the house for a walk into our little town, I’m pleased to see one of them scamper from the cornfield into the grove of trees that line the ravine.   The innocence, beauty and vulnerability of these small creatures touch me.
      If we were to accept the continued existence of the animals that cause us to feel such tenderness, then developing a deeper, more intimate relationship with them just might be what we need to become more vocal in their behalf.  Whereas doing something for these creatures on an external basis is fairly self-evident, humanity does not normally go about creating an enhanced level of compassion and understanding for them on an internal level, at least not directly.  Most people do not have the slightest inkling of how to do so.  But there is a way.
      It’s a valuable process that only takes a few minutes once you have become acquainted with it.  The first step is to calm yourself down by focusing on your breathing for a few minutes.  Just focus on the air going in and coming out of your nostrils or the rise and fall of your stomach.  Then once you have developed a bit of tranquility, visualize the wild animal with which you wish to establish a deeper bond.  Focusing as much attention on this creature as you possibly can, imagine that you exchange places with it.  You mentally transfer your consciousness into its body, and then you turn to see what was yourself with its eyes, you feel what it feels, you hear what it hears, you smell what it smells, you taste what it tastes, and you also imagine that you sense its emotions and mental processes.  Furthermore, maintain this experience for as long as you can do it comfortably and for as often as you wish.
      In this way, you can begin to develop an intimate knowledge of this living being.  When I’ve done this process with my four-legged neighbors, the gray squirrels, I’ve experienced their fears and vulnerabilities.  For example, how frightened they are of the humans around them, the dogs that chase them up the trees, and the errant hunters that have killed members of their family.  I’ve sensed how difficult it is for them to safely forage for food in the cornfield on the other side of the country road from their home in the gorge, and the pain of the hunger they’ve felt when they haven’t found enough to eat.  Yet, I’ve also intuited the happiness they’ve experienced when they’ve been together as a family, safe in some hidden nest among the trees of the ravine.
      Throughout this process, it’s quite essential to open ourselves and let certain factors flow and grow collectively within us.  If we’ve ever had any loving kindness for our animal friends, then we’ll probably focus on the creature of our attention as if it were a small baby or child.  When we experience its fears, we let our compassion comfort it.  Because we understand its happiness while it plays with its family and friends, we take joy in its freedom to do that.  During the whole time we’re involved in this exchange of self for another, we maintain and let our equanimity nurture, even if we think we’re imagining everything and it could be a silly thing we’re doing.  Finally, given enough patience, we just might begin to feel greater compassion and understanding for our animal friend; perhaps, even enough to send it some loving thoughts, such as:
            May you be free, safe, and happy.
            May you always find the food you need.
                May you continue to have a home in which to nest.
                May you have the love of family every day.
      Developing a greater feeling of compassion and realization of understanding for animal life, as I’ve said above, can be quite beneficial in helping other people to raise their awareness for the need to take an active hand in conserving the animal kingdom that exists on planet earth today.  Also, if we’ve been cognizant of the above practice, perhaps, we’ve realized the value of appreciating wildlife through the four step process called loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity.  Moreover, we might have gained the understanding that when one becomes involved on an internal as well as an external basis with our animal friends, we really begin to experience just how important these creatures are to the balance of nature, including all of humanity.  In conclusion, attempting this way of thinking and processing just might not only change our life but the lives of so many beings that are extremely vulnerable to the current direction of the world.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Meditation Without Beliefs

       I'm convinced through life experience that most people I meet want their lives to be better, especially happier and more peaceful, and that many of them look for ways to do that, usually through means that are more external than internal.  Many avoid or shy away from almost any internal method they hear about for achieving happiness and tranquility simply because it might require accepting some belief.  They often see people who, indeed, seem to have really experienced these life fulfilling objectives, but still they hesitate because they're suspicious of some hidden gimmick or belief that would entrap them.     
      After all, most of us who have reached adulthood and then some have answered the door to find people promising happiness and peace if you will just buy into their particular religion’s beliefs.  Even well-intentioned relatives, friends, and acquaintances invite us to experience their spiritual practices.  But if we’re satisfied with our religious tradition or just don’t want to try another one, we do our best to tell them “no” politely and then change the subject or close the conversation so they’ll leave our home.  All the while, however, we would still like to find something simple, a practice or technique or process not requiring us to accept any belief but offering the opportunity to find our own way to more happiness and tranquility.  I was one of the lucky ones to find such a practice with meditation many years ago while I was studying for a bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
      I was in a psychology class taught by Dr. Gordon Becker, a clinical psychologist, and one of the objectives was to write an essay on a subject that had been presented to our course group by one of the presenters who had visited our class.  Just recently, one of the economics professors in our university, Dr. David Shultze, had made a presentation on meditation, which interested me, and extended an invitation to the students in our class to visit his group on campus.  He had also indicated that meditation didn’t involve accepting any beliefs other than just trying the techniques to find out if one experienced any beneficial results.  Nor were any of the techniques of silent meditation deemed a religion.  Since I was one of those people who wanted my life to be happier and more tranquil as well as to have material on which I could write a paper, I decided to take David up on his invitation.  During the following week, I participated in his group, benefited from the forty-five minutes of silent meditation I learned to practice, and found there were no beliefs I had to accept.  Consequently, I wrote the paper and continued to attend his group because I had felt some of the peace and tranquility I wanted in my life.
      Ever since that autumn evening long ago in 1975, I’ve been practicing meditation without having to accept any beliefs and my life has become progressively happier and more tranquil.  Have there been absences from the practice along the way?  Certainly, and they’ve helped me to experience the loss of contentment and peace I needed to return to my practice and  to attend meditation retreats, study, and read to improve my ability to continue opening to the insights that  come my way.  I’ve practiced and studied with various meditation groups.  None of them have ever done anything more than try and help me in my own training while reinforcing the fact that nothing is to be believed unless you experience it to be true for yourself.
      As a result of my familiarity with meditation over the years, some things have become very clear to me.  For example, I’ve learned that one can continue practicing his or her chosen religion while carrying on meditation; in fact, it may very well improve one’s experience of spirituality in his or her faith, whether it is Protestant, Catholic, Judeo, or Buddhist.  One’s ability to focus, for instance, while praying, singing, or chanting may be enhanced.  Furthermore, your compassion to act in reducing the suffering of others may well be increased.  One of modern day life’s best models for working compassionately day in and day out, Mother Theresa, upon being asked how she prayed, responded by saying that she just listened.  When the reporter heard this reply, he asked her what she meant, and she told him that if he didn’t “know”, then there wasn’t any way she could explain it to him whereby he would understand.  However, anyone who practices mindfulness meditation would know that her method of praying was closely related to the technique of focusing on silence.
      Another insight that has come to me through meditative experience is respect for all life, specifically that of not harming other living beings.  I’ve learned that such a realization is not an idea but a “knowing” that one feels internally, throughout his or her core.  Whereas I grew up on a farm and was accustomed to killing animals such as chickens, rabbits, squirrels, pigs, sheep, and steers for food and later on had a career with the United States Air Force, I wasn’t prepared for the revelation I was about to experience during a meditation retreat in 1992. 
      Having gone outside to walk one day after lunch, I discovered myself to be automatically stepping over an army of ants crossing the path on which I was walking.  It was such a surprise to find myself doing that, for I’d never really cared anything about the life of insects before that occasion.  Moreover, if I’d stepped on them or not, it wouldn’t have mattered to me, but now I saw that it did and deeply so.  Since that time, I’ve found it really difficult to see anything being killed by others and have felt deep regret for the slaughter I’ve committed of helpless animals and insects in the past. 
      Furthermore, other things have occurred in my experience through the years to promote better happiness and tranquility as a result of practicing meditation without beliefs.  Whereas I used to become quite angry over things going wrong in my personal and professional life, this emotion seldom overwhelms me now.  Second, I find it much easier than ever before to let go of the inconsistencies that come up with English language students—what a relief!  Next, I find it rewarding to take more time to think through whatever I’d like to do before taking action.  Fourth, I’m much less ready to confront another person than I used to be, and when it’s necessary, I find myself doing it with a lot more tact, having already placed myself in his or her shoes.  Last, but most importantly, I’m much more consistent in personal relationships which has not always been the case.
      In conclusion, what has really made a difference in my life, as mentioned above, has been the practice of concentration, mindfulness, and loving kindness in meditation sessions.  Moreover, I’ve integrated them into my daily affairs and not just left them on the cushion as so many people, who don’t meditate, would probably think.  Also, one of the aspects of meditation that I really love is that it’s like the exploration of inner landscapes—you just never really know what you’re going to discover next.  Learning and employing meditational techniques does not mean blindly accepting the beliefs of any tradition; rather, it’s using what you “know” as a result of practice to function more happily and tranquilly in your everyday life.  It’s a demonstration of common sense.  One doesn’t have to become a Buddhist to improve your life through the use of meditation; even the Buddhists might prefer that you didn’t!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Where Kindness Truly Lies

      “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” so goes the golden rule, but do we really understand what the second part of that statement means?  Or should there also be a guideline that states “Do unto yourself as you would have others do unto you”?  Some might say that sounds selfish whereas others may comment that it expresses merit.  Although many of us have been taught as children to be “good” to others, the “kindness” factor, the “Do unto…,” somehow seems lacking in that teaching; however, as adults, we learn through practice and experience that being kind is a priceless and not so simple skill.
      There are, after all, certain qualities in “being kind” that not only include the idea of “being good” but also go beyond that notion.  For example, there’s the aspect of protecting oneself and others unconditionally just as an expectant mother would do so out of love for her baby.  Another characteristic of kindness is compassion, an attitude of preventing suffering.  Then as we see a part of ourselves or others change from being fearful, for example, into being confident and resolute, the kindness aspect expresses a feeling of appreciative joy, just like a mother praises a child’s achievements in life.  A fourth quality in being kind is treating the experience of life’s difficulties with equanimity; that is, not reacting but waiting until our feelings settle into a level that can be managed and then responding to what we’re facing appropriately with clarity, wisdom and nonharming.  Patience, an aspect of equanimity, is greatly involved.  One final characteristic of kindness must be spoken of here, and that is forgiveness.  It means that in being kind we approach all the difficulties we are feeling with the attitude of giving up the suffering of anger and resentment wherever it abides.
      Consequently, just as we find that in taking care of our health as a first priority for the sake of ourselves also takes care of others, should it not follow that treating ourselves kindly needs to be a top priority?  Many of us have heard and experienced the saying that “what goes around, comes around”, and in the case of being kind to ourselves, it may apply far more profoundly than we know.    When we feel, for example, peace within ourselves as a result of approaching our feelings of difficulty with all the aspects of kindness, it often radiates out to those among our family, friends and colleagues when they are experiencing life’s problems with us or others.  It’s certainly much easier to interact with them from a feeling of peace.  Random acts of kindness,
part of the saying we so often hear and see, comes from the understanding that grows from practicing this level of friendliness with ourselves.  For example, a woman in a hospice grief support group I was facilitating in San Antonio, reported that one day while she was feeling a great need to be “listened to”, she found another person on a bus also suffering from sorrow.  She expressed her kindness by “listening” to that person and thereby experienced a temporary respite from her own grief.  Just in giving “an ear”, she received what she so desperately needed on that day. 
      Finally, as we lie dying, may we not truly enter and embrace that state of our life with kindness instead of aversion and all of its emotions?  As many experts in death and dying say, we feel our life’s forces leaving us one by one, and as they do, approaching the fearful feelings we might have with the practice of kindness could offer us the comfort, wrapped in compassion and unconditional love, we desperately need.  Leaving our loved ones behind would not, perhaps, be enveloped in feelings of abandonment but a sensation of affection, whereas any anger and resentment for so-called enemies would have evaporated.  And all the while we lie dying, the degree of equanimity we would have developed over the years could hold us in a state of confidence and resolve to let nature take its course, even letting us approach it and what comes next with an attitude of curiosity.  Any regret for not having attained what we wanted in life might also have been released.  Truly, the dying process is the final test of kindness, for we also have an opportunity to be a model for others. 
      Learning, therefore, the priceless skill of “kindness” does include and goes quite beyond the idea of “being good to others” that many of us have been taught as youngsters.  We understand through our felt experience that using its characteristics in being kind to ourselves first before others makes it a top priority for being kind to others while living and dying.  Our world’s leaders would do well to learn the empirical lessons of kindness to oneself before attempting to negotiate peace with others.  In conclusion, if we truly wish to experience peace and happiness in our lives, we should try “being kind” to ourselves first.

Letting Go Of Those We Have Lost

      With the exception of very young children, all of us have experienced the loss of others in our lives.  While the feeling of loss for those who we have hardly known or known of is usually minimal, strong feelings are normally present for those with whom we’ve had a significant relationship.  The sensations we feel may range from real pain to that of joy.  More often than not, many of us may choose to avoid those feelings while others will wallow in them.  The point is, however, that if we learn to take a middle ground to consider those we have lost, we may just discover something amazing.
      For example, my mother passed away 13 years ago at the very mature age of 97, and I find it valuable to focus on her from time to time.  She was a farm woman, strong of mind, kind to her neighbors, religious, and of fervent opinions regarding life.  While she presented an excellent model for honesty and good work ethics, she certainly had a strong temperament and was prone to make human errors just as all of us do.  The good times that I remember are many, such as the wonderful meals she prepared, the time she took to talk and read to me, and the way she showed me how to interact with others.  When I was quite ill with bad colds or the flu, she took great care of me.  On the other hand, there were experiences that weren’t so great—after all, I was quite rebellious.  For example, she didn’t spare the rod or hold anything back in terms of tongue lashing.  Spending an occasional few minutes in a dark pantry was her form of ostracism along with some threats of being sent to the reform school.  The use of religious intimidation wasn’t out of her reach either.  All told, the good far outweighed the bad.
      In fact, learning to take the middle ground to consider Mom has given me the opportunity to see her in ways far differently than ever before.  First, I had to learn the technique which involves focusing on a state of mind between the experience of her loss and the freedom from the pain of that grief.  This involved concentrating on the in-between emotions and feelings, and absolutely none of the thoughts that came up during the process.  Having a background in concentration, mindfulness, and loving kindness techniques was very helpful.  Second, the initial experience was quite different from what I had previously encountered because of an increased need to center myself from my forehead down through the heart.  Finally, I learned that patience was a key factor while continuing to focus and let go of whatever came up.  It became quite clear to me that Mom had had a great hand in helping me to grow in so many ways, especially with unconditional love, compassion, non-harming, spirituality, and helping others throughout my life. 
      By taking this in-between state of mind to consider the experience I had with my mother, I’ve learned a great deal that has added to the mindfulness practice I follow.  It has allowed me to add a new channel for personal growth, so I adamantly recommend that others try this with the people they have lost.  Moreover, it is worthwhile to do this with other experiences we’ve had or are having, especially those that have to do with fear.  In conclusion, this life-long personal training without doubt prepares us for whatever comes our way in the course of daily living and, I would daresay, in our dying moments.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Fears of Parenthood

Among the various aspects of life, family is usually in the top tier of what we cherish so greatly, especially if we're parents.  We value our children's presence, their well being and how they fare in life from its very beginning.  Being part of their lives is something in which we wish to experience great joy.  This, however, is not always the case, for along the journey of parenting most of us are ill equipped to identify and resolve the major fears we encounter.

While these experiences can arise as small, almost insignificant, tinges of doubt, they can often render us incapable of responding appropriately as parents.  When we become really upset and angry about something, for example, that our teenage children have done, underlying all the heated words is the fear of losing control and the insecurity around that issue.  The opportunity for doing something rash is really apparent at such a time.  Second, if our children don't want to talk with or listen to us, our fear of being abandoned or losing our connection with them comes to center stage.  We go about wondering different thoughts that keep us in this mode of anxiety.  Finally, when our children, especially adult children, don't want to share their difficulties with us, invite us to an important event in their lives, or visit us if we're incapacitated, our fear of not being worthy confronts us head on.  With this in mind, some of us might even contemplate suicide while a fraction of those in our midst actually carry it out.  In sum, these principal fears often leave us at a loss to know what to do as they did with our parents and those before them.

There is, nevertheless, something we can do.  When we feel these fears coming on, there are three simple actions we can carry out that permit us to respond appropriately while continuing to be an important role model for our children.  They may sound like an oversimplification but, believe me, they are not.  First, we need to center ourselves.  It's kind of like the old saying, "Stop and count to ten before you do something you'll regret."  Or it's something as simple as putting your attention on your breathing and allowing it to calm down previous to speaking or acting.  Second, we have to pay attention to the feelings or sensations going on inside of us during the event that's filling us with fear.  Just by noticing these feelings and keeping our attention on them, we may see that they start to settle down, especially when we couple them with focused breathing.  Third, it's wise to bring an attitude of kindness to these feelings, treating them as if they were a child in pain, and taking joy in them as they change into confidence and resolution.  Finally, we'll find that this process may have given us the space and clarity in which we can decide what to do and then take appropriate action with our children.

Of course, while these steps give us a formula of what's possible to do in the middle of parenting, it's also wise to develop and keep them sharpened when we're alone.  If we've just put the baby down for a nap or sent the kids off to school, we may have an opportunity to turn off our distractions (television, radio, internet, cellular phone) and sit down in a quiet place.  If we're at work, we may be able to go for a walk in a nearby park at lunch time.  And then, since this is not a thinking exercise, we simply center ourselves, recall what has upset us, pay attention to the reactive sensations in our body while disregarding any thoughts that come up, and treat these feelings with the kindness one gives to children in need.  After 10 or 15 minutes, we can go back to our daily affairs.  Done over time, we'll find that this little daily activity does help prepare us for being with our children no matter what their age is.  We know that the resources we depend on in life should be developed and always ready to use, so why should we treat ourselves any differently?  After all, who are our children going to depend on?  If we take care of ourselves, we may even find the joy in parenting that we've wanted all along.

Giving ourselves the skills we need to identify and resolve the fears we associate with parenting may be the best gift we can ever offer ourselves and our children.  Certainly, these steps are not easy to take in the middle of everyday living, and in the beginning we may be lucky if we can apply them even once out of every 10 times.  Of course, that one time just might be the crucial one, the one that keeps the family together.  Wouldn't that be worthwhile?