I’ve been thinking a lot about this word lately—on several levels. In English, aware means knowing, conscious, mindful, informed, perhaps wise. Strangely enough, however, there is a Japanese concept spelled the same way in English, but pronounced “ a-wa-re’ “. I first learned about this term at a retreat where the speaker defined it as meaning “happy-sad.” I found this to be a fascinating concept and one for which we have no parallel in our language. Apparently this term comes from a certain historical period in Japanese literature. I have researched it a bit, and it seems to really mean the poignancy of life. It is the emotional realization that everything in life is transient and impermanent, which makes it all very sweet and sad at the same time. As a parent, I would compare it to watching your child take his first step, and then he is walking and running and soon he is grown up and leaving. You know each stage is fleeting as it is happening, and there is both joy and sorrow in this. This word aware’ touches me deeply. I think it defines the human condition. It is the enigma that we all struggle with—how to be happy and how to deal with sorrow and suffering.
This all became even clearer to me this week when I participated in a Tonglen meditation. Tonglen is a Tibetan meditation known as a Giving and Taking meditation. In this particular style, we were guided to inhale the suffering and grief of others (the “stuff” of life, as Tara Brach intoned) and to exhale space and openness. We were guided to note the feelings in our body as we did both. I had the remarkable realization that the bodily feeling associated with sadness, anxiety and grief was actually the same as that associated with happiness, joy and spaciousness. This knowing that happiness and sadness are inextricably interwoven became palpable to me. It is certainly something I understood on some level already, but this was truly more visceral and beyond words.
So essentially, awareness of your breath with compassion, daily, leads to equanimity and freedom.
This has been an interesting few days here in Bend. Fire is truly a living capricious thing. From the moment I saw the two first plumes trailing into the bright blue sky, concern set in. I stood on my deck with my camera and binoculars watching the fire quickly progress. It was both scary and amazing. After an hour or so I started seeing a spotter plane and then later helicopters and tankers. All evening into night we watched the fire spread, becoming an orange flaming glow on the horizon. Remarkably, the “Two Bulls Fire” is now mostly contained. I am so grateful to the firefighters for working so hard to quickly get the fire under control. Only a charred swath of smoldering ashes and wispy smoke remains.
The Heart Center Meditation is a lovely practice I first encountered when I was doing an Integrative Medicine fellowship through the University of Arizona. Ann Marie Chiasson, M.D., an integrative physician and energy healer, taught this meditation of repeating four mantras. It struck me deeply at the time, so much so that I wear a Navajo ring with four different colored gemstones to signify the four parts of the meditation. I feel that these four qualities define the healer.
The Buddha taught that practicing the Four Heavenly Abodes or Sublime Attitudes leads to liberation of the heart, which is love. Also known as the Brahma Viharas (in the original Pali language of the Buddha), they are lovingkindness (metta), sympathetic joy (mudita), equanimity (upekkha) and compassion (karuna).
Dr. Chiasson modified these slightly to be unconditional love, healing presence, inner harmony and compassion. She teaches the meditation by recommending that you place your left hand over your heart, and then place your right hand over it with your thumb tips touching. Close your eyes and repeat the four attitudes silently, one with each breath. Compassion is first invited into your heart. She describes this as limitless and oceanic compassion. With the next breath inner harmony is invited. This is balance within leading to balanced action. Next is healing presence, which is the desire for healing in the self and in others. She defines this as love in action. Last is unconditional love, which is reverence, awe or love while seeing things as they are.
This all sounds so simple, but repeating this meditation for five minutes daily can lead to a more open heart.
I learned a beautiful loving kindness, or metta, meditation at the retreat I recently attended. Metta meditations are a way to extend feelings of warmth and well-being toward yourself and others. Traditionally the phrases are repeated silently and invoke kind feelings first toward yourself and then toward others. An example would begin: May I be safe. May I be well. May I be happy. May I dwell in peace. Next these words would be repeated toward a friend or loved one, then a neutral person, a difficult person and lastly toward all beings. This may sound mechanical, but over time generalized goodwill and loving feelings are the result.
My retreat-mate from the Zen community taught us all a metta set to song that her community sings. It is truly lovely. The words are sung to Amazing Grace.
May I be filled with loving kindness.
May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.
May you be filled with loving kindness.
May you be well.
May you be peaceful and at ease.
May you be happy.
May we be filled with loving kindness.
May we be well.
May we be peaceful and at ease.
May we be happy.
May all be filled with loving kindness.
May all be well.
May all be peaceful and at ease.
May all be happy.
I’ve always loved the joyful uplifting melody of Amazing Grace, but the lyrics never resonated with me. Now I have new words that truly fit for me. There seems no better way to say a loving kindness meditation than set to song.
I recently had the privilege of attending a 5-day silent meditation retreat. This was both a wonderful and challenging experience. I have done this before, so I generally knew what to expect. The teachers were two engaging female Buddhist dharma teachers who guide retreats in the Vipassana (insight meditation) tradition. They were warm, welcoming and funny. They definitely made daily silent meditation practice from 6:15 AM to 9:30 PM as easy as possible. And the weather mostly cooperated, which definitely helped when engaging in walking meditation outdoors.
I had many interesting thoughts and a few small revelations during this time. The most lovely, however, did not occur during meditation. On the last morning of the retreat, all thirty of us and our two teachers gathered in a big circle to say goodbye and comment on what we had gained from our time in silence together. One woman, whom I had met on the first day prior to the start of silence, piped up. This young woman sat in front of me all five days. I had become accustomed to seeing her back with perfectly erect posture, sitting motionless and serene. She also roomed in the same building where I was staying, in the room next to mine. The retreat had been especially meaningful to her. She came to the retreat not knowing
what to expect. Although she is a very experienced meditator, she practices in the Zen tradition and belongs to a Zen temple. She had come to this retreat because Zen retreats are much more arduous with minimal sleep and austere conditions. She had recently been hit by a car and could not physically tolerate this type of practice at present. She began to eloquently tell her story.
She had been practicing Zen Buddhism for ten years and felt very welcome at this retreat. During the last day of the retreat it had begun to drizzle. We all left the meditation hall at 9:30 that last night and walked out into a wet and very dark night. The lights on the paths to our rooms were strangely unlit. She walked quickly toward our little house, but it was difficult to see and slippery. She and several others were picking their way carefully up the stone stairs, concerned with being unable to see well and possibly slipping. Then, she noted, light appeared from behind her. Someone walking behind her was carrying a flashlight and had raised it to light their way. She was grateful for this small kindness. More than that, though, it held a greater meaning for her. Her dharma name, she went on to explain, is “Kishin,” which means light bearer. She noted that the Buddha was known as the light bearer, so the name is particularly special to her. Now, however, she felt like she had new insight into just how important this name really is and what it signifies. All because of a raised flashlight on a dark rainy night.
I was the one walking behind her with the flashlight. I simply had noticed the group in front of me didn’t have any light and had slowed down to carefully make there way up the steps. It was a small simple kindness that I would hope anyone would do for me. I had no idea at the time how significant this was for my retreat-mate. I am so grateful she spoke and told her story. It clearly shows how interconnected we all are and how even our smallest actions can have meaning and consequence. So there is my true epiphany for the week. Everything we do, every choice we make, every interaction we have matters. You may not know it at the time or maybe ever, but it does matter.
I’d like to tell a story about the web. No, I don’t mean the worldwide web or the Internet. I’m talking about a different kind of web.
I went to a seminar several years ago about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) with Jon Kabat-Zinn. The experience involved not only learning about MBSR, but doing various types of meditation including sitting meditation, body awareness (called the body scan) and walking meditation like at a retreat. I had many lovely little epiphanies during the course of all these activities. Spending a week with 200 other folks intensely interested in mindfulness can in itself be an enlightening experience. It was a cauldron of swirling emotion and intellect ranging from Buddhist thought and practice to clinical studies of mindfulness involving fMRI (functional MRI). All in all, it was a fascinating and stimulating time.
One moment stands out as particularly interesting to me. We (all 200 of us) were out in a grassy field next to the hall where the seminar was being held. This area was at least as large as a football field. Two hundred people were distributed throughout the space, each having staked out a little zone where they could practice walking meditation. This involved walking perhaps ten paces forward and then turning and walking ten paces back. This is all done with mindful awareness of the movement of walking. The idea is to be in the moment concentrating purely on the motion of your body. The pace is your own—some people move at a turtle slow pace, and others at a faster clip. It is done silently. We must have been quite the sight—two hundred zoned-out-appearing people walking back and forth at all different speeds with no seeming destination. Well, I was doing my own thing near one end of the field, slowly measuring my steps, stopping at the end of my line to pause, close my eyes and take a deep breath before turning to walk in the other direction. I opened my eyes after pausing and saw the most odd but lovely sight. It looked like a huge haphazard web of connections between each and every person. It only lasted moments—actually dissipating when I blinked. Of course I stood there wondering what I had just seen and if I was hallucinating. Then I continued on my walk.
Who knows if what I briefly saw was just a creation of my imaginative mind or a sudden subtle visualizing of something usually not seeable. Who cares. To me it is significant at least in its symbolism. In reality I do believe this interconnection does exist in some type of way. We all share a common humanity of worries, hopes, emotions, fears, joys and sorrows. Thich Nhat Hanh likes to call this Interbeing—not only are we connected, but everything is connected. In Buddhism and Hinduism, this cosmic interrelatedness is known as Indra’s Net, which is seeded with jewels, each reflecting and showing the reflection of the other jewels. In each facet of each jewel is seen not only each other jewel, but the net as a whole. This is not only a visually beautiful analogy, but consistent with the concept that nothing exists on its own. Everything is interdependent. Every thing is part of the whole, and the whole is part of every thing.
Not a bad insight into life for a week spent with my 200 new friends.
My favorite word is equanimity. I’m not completely sure why. The sound of the word rolls off my tongue in a mellifluous fashion. It has a musical flow to it. The Latin for equanimity is aequanimitas from aequo animo, which means “with even mind.” The dictionary definition is evenness of mind or right balance. I like that. Equanimity has connotations of harmony and balance. It means evenness on all levels—in thought, emotion, nature and life. To hear the word calls me to balance my actions and reactions, and to temper my ups and downs—or at least to try. I believe equanimity is the path to happiness. By happiness I mean a sense of contentment—a sort of middle of the road satisfaction with life. This is not the happiness of a roller coaster ride full of superlatives and tragedies. This is the middle path. The real joy of life is sitting in this balance between giddiness and despair, living on an even keel. It may not sound glamorous, but it does sound sustainable. I like that too.
I struggle. I struggle every day. Everyone struggles. It may be momentary or last the whole day. Life is struggle. Is this bad? Not necessarily. What does this mean? We struggle with our thoughts, our feelings, our hopes and dreams, our spouse, our kids, our jobs, our goals, our finances, our friends. Everything. This is life. How do we define struggle? Merriam-Webster says struggle means “to make strenuous or violent efforts in the face of difficulties or opposition” or as a noun, struggle is “an act of strongly motivated striving.” Ah. Striving in the face of difficulty. What if we give up the striving part? Does the opposition melt away? I think it does. Striving is your own creation. This is really the heart of mindfulness. When you are able to release striving, what is left is the moment where you are. This was a real epiphany to me. My mantra truly used to be, “Life is a struggle.” It still rolls off my tongue occasionally out of long-term habit. But really what I realized at some point through reading about and practicing mindfulness meditation is that life is just now—this moment. It is not yesterday or tomorrow, just now. It isn't even your thoughts or feelings or sensations. The struggle somehow evaporates in this realization. Now I’m not saying this is easy. There is continual work involved in maintaining this. This is a process of which I remind myself constantly. Nevertheless, I know it, and it is not something I always knew. I learned it through experiencing mindfulness. Anyone can learn it. It just takes practice.
Dr. Heather's musings about medicine, mindfulness and life.
Heather Krantz, M.D.
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Bend, OR 97708 Bend, OR 97702
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