Category Archives: Spiritual

‘Basic Elements of Meditation Practice,’ More Incredible AudioDharma Teachings from Tara Brach

                                                                                                                                                   Tara Brach

Yes, I am writing about Tara Brach again.  Her teachings have been having a huge impact on me.  I started this blog as a place to share things that I believe have the power to change the quality of peoples’ lives, specifically in the arena of health.  From a holistic perspective our mental and physical health are inseparable, both spheres affecting one another.  When something like Mindfulness Meditation begins to have a positive effect on one’s life they can’t help but want to share it with as many people as possible.

One of the biggest things stopping people from receiving the benefits of meditation is a misunderstanding of the goal.  The idea isn’t to clear your mind or completely stop thought, but to accept what is happening in your mind at the given moment, without judgement, attachment, or aversion.  The ups and downs of life are inevitable and this ability to accept can greatly improve the way we face these undulations.  Few can explain the subtleties of this to a Western audience better than Tara Brach.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

In February she released a two-part series on her podcast called ‘Basic Elements of Meditation Practice.’  The teachings are nice for people who want to start meditating, but have had trouble getting started, while at the same time they are useful for those looking to go deeper into their own understanding.  The lectures show us that meditation doesn’t have to be complicated and should never be difficult.  Often times the quality of intention is what counts, viewing it as something you look forward too, rather than a chore or another thing we should be doing. She expounds on the importance of consistency over length of session, especially when getting started.  She beautifully relates this to the cycles of nature and how coming back each and every day creates a rhythm, even if it’s just sitting on the cushion for a few minutes when we wake up or before we go to bed.  I can’t recommend this series enough to anyone interested in simple, easy-to-follow guidance.  I will close with a poem Brach shares at the end of Part 2.  Namaste.

Peace is This Moment Without Judgment

“Do you think peace requires an end to war?
Or tigers eating only vegetables?
Does peace require an absence from
your boss, your spouse, yourself? …
Do you think peace will come some other place than here?
Some other time than Now?
In some other heart than yours?

Peace is this moment without judgment.
That is all. This moment in the Heart-space
where everything that is is welcome.
Peace is this moment without thinking
that it should be some other way,
that you should feel some other thing,
that your life should unfold according to your plans.

Peace is this moment without judgment,
this moment in the heart-space where
everything that is is welcome. ”
-Dorothy Hunt

Mindfulness and Dharma Talks with Tara Brach

The past two months I’ve witnessed my head space and thoughts move to a better place due to Washington D.C. based meditation teacher, Tara Brach. I first heard about her thanks to Maria Popova over at brainpickings. Through listening to her dharma talks via podcast and using some of the guided meditations on her webpage I have found deeper compassion for myself and a healthier way of viewing the world. Her teachings offer a chance to move from victim-hood to being an agent of change in your own life and others.

If you have the opportunity to scroll through her past talks Parts 1 and 2 about the “Power of Self-Compassion,” will give you new insight into the human condition and how to deal with it.

One titled, “Earth’s Crisis,” created an arena for me to deal with my own fears regarding the worldwide ecological crisis.

A Generous Heart,” explores not only why generosity and giving make us feel so good, but how creating that space in our heart can actually help us heal ourselves and our relationships with others.

Perhaps my favorite part of the podcast, aside from the peaceful state of mind it puts me in and the space for reflection on current issues in my life it creates, is all of the great quotes, anecdotes, poems, and comics she shares with the audience. From Rumi to Emerson to comics about things like a mouse with a cat psychiatrist, and everything in between, Brach infuses each lecture with references that either make you laugh or truly do inspire. Here are just a few that I’ve enjoyed so far.

  1. From Paul Hawken’s 2009 commencement speech, “In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe, which is exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”
  1. Also from the same speech, “Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.
  2. From Cami Walker, No matter how much we have materially, we are often in a place of scarcity. We never think we have enough or that we’re good enough. Instead of getting lost in a sense of lack, once we realize we are part of something bigger, it becomes clear we have many gifts to offer the world.”
  3. From George Eliot:

If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard, 
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went —
Then you may count that day well spent.

  1. Joanna Macy’s poem, “Bestiary.
  2. From Rumi,

    Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
    and rightdoing there is a field.
    I’ll meet you there.

    When the soul lies down in that grass
    the world is too full to talk about.”

Compassion, Forgiveness, and a Case for the Usefulness of Scripture When Viewed as Metaphor

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Although I don’t adhere to a particular religion, I deeply appreciate lessons gleaned from the study of religious texts and their application to modern life. Without this formation, I am not sure how I would have dealt with an unfortunate scene I witnessed one day last month. After seeing a mob-sized crowd belittle a small group of gypsy beggars I found myself feeling angry and helpless at the same time, full of disgust for what humans are capable of at times. It was the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha that helped bring me back to center, back to homeostasis and balance.

Joseph Campbell approached each religion as if he were studying mythology, rather than fact. It allowed him to view the teachings as metaphors he could apply to his own life and teach others how to use in their own, rather than a set of rules imposed upon us as an inescapable obligation. In The Power of Myth he states:

“In the study of comparative mythology, we compare the images in one system with the images in another, and both become illuminated because one will accent and give clear expression to one aspect of meaning, and another to another. They clarify each other.

When I started teaching comparative mythology, I was afraid I might destroy my students’ religious beliefs, but what I found was just the opposite. Religious traditions, which didn’t mean very much to them, but which were the ones their parents had given them, suddenly became illuminated in a new way when we compared them with other tradition, where similar images had been given a more inward or spiritual interpretation.

I had Christian students, Jewish students, Buddhist students, a couple of Zoroastrian students – they all had this experience. There’s no danger in interpreting the symbols of a religious system and calling them metaphors instead of facts. What that does is to turn them into messages for your own inward experience and life. The system suddenly becomes a personal experience.”

Liverpool football club was in town to play against Real Madrid. As I walked home through the historic center I heard groups singing football songs and smiled, as I always enjoy the camaraderie the fans share amongst themselves. My smile and feelings of good cheer faded as I made my way into Plaza Mayor. The scene reminded me of a medieval hanging, but rather than gathering around the gallows the jeering crowd had encircled a group of gypsy woman. They laughed and hollered as they threw coins at the woman and watched them scramble to collect them, sometimes falling over one another in an attempt to get the coin first. They threw empty beer cans at the women and sprayed beer and one fellow even circled around them swinging a towel over his head as if he were herding farm animals.

The British tourist were treating these women like subhumans, while in my eyes of the moment they were the ones who looked like pigs. I grew more upset once I noticed how many people were filming the “spectacle” as if it were something they could share and laugh about later, boosting their own egos. To make matters worse, there were fathers with their children joining in. When I could no longer contain my anger I entered the circle and turned towards the section of the crowd closest to me. I shouted, asking how they could be filming such a thing and that the whole thing was a disgrace. I was met with furious stares and told to “shut the fuck up.” Where does that kind of hate come from?

Seething with negative emotions, I walked home. I thought about everything I had ever learned about Jesus and his limitless capacity for forgiveness as I struggled to forgive this mob. I considered how even Buddhist teachers often turn to Jesus as an example for compassion, recalling S. Goenka’s lectures from a Vipassana course I had attended. As I began to calm down a little bit I looked for forgiveness in my heart and found some, but it certainly wasn’t limitless. How could Jesus forgive those who crucified him even as they committed the act? It was clear I had to dive deep into my heart and search for some morsel of understanding before I could forgive and move on with peace of mind.

Luckily, that very afternoon I came across an article from an old issue of Spirituality & Health magazine. The article was “The Four Aspects of Love,” by Thicht Nhat Hanh, but what stuck with me was a story about the author from Karen Bouris’s introduction:

Twenty years ago, the Rodney King riots had just exploded in Los Angeles, and the image of a fallen man being beaten by police replayed itself over and over on television sets everywhere. That same week, I went to a talk at the Berkeley Community Theatre featuring Thich Nhat Hanh.

The auditorium filled with thousands of people as this small man in robes, little known to me at the time, took the stage. He immediately started talking about the newsthe beating, the riots, the events in Los Angeles that were triggering anger around the world. He spoke about his sadness for the beaten man. And then he spoke about his even greater sadness for the men doing the beatingthe rage they must have had inside and the deep suffering that would cause them to act out in this way. You could hear a pin drop as the audience took in his words, his understanding, and his compassion for every person in this struggle.” See more at: http://spiritualityhealth.com/articles/four-aspects-love#sthash.2TAYAhaE.dpuf

Suddenly it clicked and I had a deeper understanding of where the hate I watched unfold that afternoon has come from. It was the same hate that stemmed from the “deep suffering” of the men dealing the beatings in the Rodney King riots, the same hate that always seems to grow from an inner wound only to express itself in some heartless way. In my own heart I felt some piece of the boundless forgiveness Jesus bestowed upon the world and the compassion that Buddha’s dharma teaches. The forgiveness archetype that runs through all of the world’s myths and religions in various shapes in forms. In appreciation for the peace it brought me I radiated that love to the young man who looked the angriest and shouted with the most rage, the voice and the image that had affected me the most.

Healing and the Hero’s Adventure

“…we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us.  The labyrinth is thoroughly known.  We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god.  And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves.  Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence.  And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.” – Joseph Campbell

Dealing with a chronic condition can be viewed as a long ordeal, but in many ways it mirrors the hero’s quest. A journey is undergone and eventually some greater knowledge is gathered and brought back to be shared. There is always a moment of isolation that separates the hero from ordinary life, a “why me?” sort of lament. It could come in the form of an illness, a task or destiny that needs fulfilling, or as in the case of Bilbo Baggins, an unexpected journey. In this moment we are forced to ask ourselves how to proceed.  Along the way helpers and demons will present themselves in many forms. Healers may come save the day, while in other cases one may receive misguided information. What works for some will not work for others. Each adventure into the unknown is different, but one’s faith will be tested in every case.

A path opens up to those on the quest. One full of hardship and suffering, despair and deceit.  We feel deceived by our bodies and by fate or God, and then by doctors who can help with the symptoms, but fail to offer an optimistic view or how to deal with the cause. However, it is also a path full of unexpected coincidences, spontaneous remissions, the right healer with the right method of healing, and other fruits brought forth by this forced adjustment to our usual way of life.

The hero’s journey is one of suffering and isolation, but at the same time one of union and sometimes even great joy, particularly upon breaking through to the other side, having attained a new perspective. Whether one becomes fully cured or simply adapts their condition to a new way of life, without a doubt there is always a healing that took place. An emotional healing that only one who has walked the path can understand. A coming to terms with the state of the universe and their place in it, a way of viewing the world that finally makes sense. It is there for anyone to find, we are all heroes after all, but those faced with illness are offered a special opportunity for rapid change, a freedom to leave all preconceived notions behind.

I recently watched a movie called The Sacred Science. It follows eight people with chronic conditions who journey to the Amazon of Peru seeking healing. They agree to spend 30 days working with the healing Shamans there. The patients under a special “diet” that includes certain foods, long periods of isolation and treatment with ayahuasca, and other plant medicines, as a means of gaining a new insight on their condition and breaking old life patterns they may have been stuck in. The majority are patients who tried everything allopathic medicine had to offer, and only then decided to give a different method a shot. Five of the eight patients come back completely off their medications and markedly improved.

Each participant reflected on experiencing a new level of consciousness and way of viewing their life and the world. Although they may never be able to fully explain the experiences leading to these insights to others, they know the impact it had on their own lives. An inner journey towards inner and outer health; mind, body, and soul. Having come out the other side (even when not completely cured), illness can then be viewed as a gift of suffering, a gift that led to a higher state of awareness, a higher quality of being. Many heroes have walked the labyrinth before and I hope others will continue to see their struggle and opportunity in the same light.

A personal case study: How much does our mind affect our symptoms?

Back in Spain again. The frightening images begin to replay in my mind. Lumbering up subway stairs fatigued, only to find myself nearly too weak to push open the heavy door. Leaning on a desk for support in front of a full class of students, pretending to feel OK. Waking up with fear every workday, wondering if I’ll have enough energy to get through it. Hours and hours in waiting rooms and on public transportation between appointments with people who have little time for me, lacking the personal touch most doctors don’t seem to possess anymore. Standing on the scale to see I’m 20 pounds below my normal weight and then being told by various specialists that I’m allergic to many foods or that my body won’t tolerate other ones…what to eat to keep from withering away? The terror of being in a crowded subway train full of people with sniffles and sneezes on a rainy day after having a doctor tell me my immune system was functioning at a sub-par level. Frightful hours on the internet trying to figure out what the heck is wrong with me (never a good idea).

Suddenly, being back in Spain, old symptoms start to show up again. It doesn’t make any sense. You see, I felt fine over the summer. After close to 10 months of getting worse and worse and then eventually slowly improving, from what was determined to be Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome, I had a pretty great summer back in California. It wasn’t perfect, there were bad days and moments of doubt, but for the most part I was pretty normal. My symptoms were mostly under control. I had started doing activity again. Light hiking, short jogs, yoga, I was even starting to get back into surfing. I could enjoy a beer or glass of wine without instantly feeling light-headed. I took trips to Mexico and New York. I was back up to my pre-Peace Corps weight and looked just the same as before I left.  Most importantly, I didn’t go to bed wiped out, wondering how I’d feel the next day.

So how could this be happening again? This year in Spain was supposed to make up for last year. I was actually going to have energy to dedicate to my English classes and students this time, rather than feigned enthusiasm masking a depressed-laden exhaustion. But here I was…manifesting many of the same symptoms I thought I had overcome. Strange nerve sensations made my arms feel numb. My sciatica was back, and my legs felt weak when I walked. I was sore all over and felt nausea when I tried to eat. I had trouble getting down most types of food. My groin, parts of my arms, and chest were red and itchy. Physically I felt like I had been catapulted directly back to the land of all of the issues from before.

Logically it didn’t make any sense. How could changing geographic locations, returning to a place, bring back all of this? At home I was fine. This went on for 3 to 4 days as I explored the issues at hand and dove into my emotions about the whole thing. Once I was honest with myself I realized that I was afraid I would get worse again and thinking about a lot of “what if” scenarios regarding my livelihood. It was starting to look like last year because I was afraid it would be like last year. I was consumed by a subconscious fear that had worked its way to the surface. I cried and I panicked. It was all one, big nervous breakdown. At last as I slept one night I had an overall sense of calm wash over me and I knew it would be okay. The next day I felt back to normal.

To what extent do our thoughts and fears dictate our experiences? Just what’s lying below the surface of conscious thinking? How do we put ourselves in a place of mind to thrive rather than thrash about? To choose health rather than illness?