Enhancing The Training in Joy

Over the past year, I have come to really love the practice of Tonglen. Only, I don’t do it so much when I am doing my sitting practice, rather I have been doing Tonglen on the spot.

So, as I have mentioned in past posts, Tonglen is the Buddhist practice of Taking and Sending. A very basic description is to simply recognize and breathe in the suffering of others or yourself, allowing your compassionate heart to transform this suffering into compassionate light and healing and then sending out that light as you exhale.

This practice has been quite helpful to me over the winter and has really soothed some difficult moments. However, this weekend I started using Tonglen (on the spot) in another way.

I have a neighbour who is quite elderly. I used to visit her from time to time with a basket of baking or just to stop in for a chat. Recently, my neighbour took a turn for the worse and has been admitted into a nursing home. The whole community kind of expected this to happen, but still, her absence is felt and especially so whenever I walk past her house and see the empty garden.

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This weekend, when I was walking past her home, I noticed that the hawthorn and the various flowers outside her gate were blooming. They were beautiful and stopped me in my tracks. I marveled at their bloom, and inhaled their scent, then I really savoured the moment and sent it out to my neighbour as I exhaled. I felt she must be missing her land and the glory of the Irish countryside in May. We often spoke about how it was our favourite time of the year.

Pema Chodron talks about this version of Tonglen as ‘enhancing the training in joy’ and it did feel like I was magnifying my joy by sending it to my neighbour. So much so, that I was inspired and cut some of the flowers, made a bouquet and decided to visit her and bring her garden to her. At this, I felt joy in my heart. I feels good to do something nice for others. So, as I planned my trip over to see her, there was a skip in my step and a smile on my face as I walked home.

With this small practice, I not only enhanced my training in joy, but I brought a deep feeling of well-being into my heart.

So, this week’s challenge is to see what it might be like to enhance YOUR training in joy. See if you can stop and notice any moments where you experience any pleasure or tenderness in life, breathe in savouring that moment and then exhale and send it out to someone you may know is suffering.

-Jane

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Giving Thanks…

They say that there are a thousands of influencing factors that affect the way we experience ‘something’ and perspective is one of them. Have you ever heard someone relay an event that you were a part of and been dumbfounded by their interpretation of it? Their version is not necessarily wrong, but it might be different to yours, depending on how they perceived it.

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One of the most transforming perspectives that one can choose to take in any given moment is gratefulness. Gratefulness is always an option.

On speaking about gratefulness, the Zen Buddhist monk/teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and the Benedictine monk BR. David Steindl-Rast found that they had more in common than not, and both found mindfulness at the heart of gratefulness. These two tenants go hand in hand, and what is more, we have the ability to touch in with gratefulness in every moment of the day: good or bad.

Br.David Steindl-Rast explains that “gratefulness is really always gratefulness for opportunity. When you see the flowers, it is the opportunity to enjoy them and smell them. So even suffering is the opportunity to learn compassion. And what you are grateful for is never the thing itself, but the opportunity for whatever this present, given moment offers you. And when we respond, we find there is compassion”. So, even if our moment is difficult, we can soften around the experience by switching perspective and witnessing the opportunity for growth.

Thich Nhat Hanh echoes this sentiment when he goes on to add that “gratefulness can be felt with every step. You are alive and your feet are still strong enough for you to make steps on this beautiful planet. So, with mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness of walking, every step you make brings you home to the here and the now, so that you can get in touch with all of the wonders of life and every step like that can be nourishing and healing”. Again, each step that we take, and every moment that we have carries the potential and opportunity for transformation. In this way, even the most difficult moment can hold promise.

This week’s mindfulness challenge is to set the intention to bring gratefulness into the difficult moments we are faced with each and every day. Perhaps it is a good idea to start with the small difficult moments, such as, whenever we feel uncomfortable (too hot/ too cold) or when we feel challenged in conversation. We might see if we can be grateful that we have the opportunity to tend to our situation by putting on or taking off a layer…and that we have clothes on our back. Or perhaps, we might feel grateful that we live in a society where voicing our opinions out loud is one of the basic human rights that we enjoy.

As we bring gratefulness into these moments, notice the thoughts that surface, the feelings in the body and our emotional state in response to this switch in perspective. And as with all of our practices, if things become too difficult, simply come back to your breath and rest.

Let us know how you get on!

-Jane

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A Dedication…

This week has been a week of dedications for me. It feels like every time my mother rings me she is telling me about some friend or past colleague who has been diagnosed with a long- term illness or has passed away or is struggling with mobility, etc… I suppose it comes with her age as she is in her late 70s and many of her friends are even older. My brother and I usually speak about how depressing it can be to endure this almost ritualistic citation of all those who have been touched with hardship. Yet, for my mother, it is almost like an honouring or a meeting with the suffering of those all around her.

But then she usually moves on with the ‘Oh well, I guess it’s just that time in my life where these things can happen’ to telling me about a recipe she has made or her trip to the gym and all of the weekly deals on at her local supermarket. She doesn’t hold on to it. She meets it, expresses it and then goes on living. (BTW- watermelons are on cheap in The Superstore in Winnipeg, Canada at the moment!)

My mother’s news has often seeped into moments of my practice. At times when I am sitting, I will start to think of someone she has told me about, an old neighbour whose young daughter has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, one of her fellow teaching buddies who is in palliative care, her own best friend who passed away before her time and I realize that it must be so difficult for my parents to watch their friends and colleagues suffer and lose their lives. It can leave me feeling helpless. So how can I honour? How can I meet this suffering in my own way? And go on living.

One of the ways I feel of some use in a constructive way is to dedicate my practice to specific people that my mother has mentioned, or indeed, to anyone who I might know personally who is going through a hardship (or even a joy). If you have been at any of my weekly sits, you might have witnessed me guiding the group to choose someone specifically that they know of that is struggling or even celebrating at the time and to dedicate the benefits of the practice to this person before sending out the benefits in ever-expanding circles. I do this because this is what I do in my own practice.

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We made this dedication in this week’s sit and heard from some of the members of how this practice of dedication can be so helpful in that it can really aid the process of turning towards the suffering or joy of others in a safe way that is supported by the practice. It felt good to share and hear how dedication was having a positive impact amongst the group.

Then, later that night, I received a call informing me that one of my dearest friends in Canada had lost her mom the night before. She had passed away unexpectedly. Being so far away, that feeling of helplessness seeped back in but in a much more profound way as this loss was so close to my heart.

Immediately, I touched base with my friend and extended my condolences. However, there is only so much I can do from this physical distance. One way that I have felt a more tangible connection has been through my dedications of my practice to my friend, her mother and all those touched by this grief. Somehow, I feel an active part of the process that she is going through with the loss of her mother, which engages my empathic heart, and also relieves some of the turmoil I experience from not being more ‘there’ for her. I can turn towards the suffering in a way that I don’t get stuck in a guilt of not being there. This allows me to be with, but also to carry on with my everydayness.

So this week’s challenge is to dedicate. We can make a small dedication to anyone we know that is going through a life event at the end of our sitting practices, or even after a lovely walk through a beautiful park, or after a delicious meal, a good laugh, a healing cry. We can dedicate any part of our day that generates some benefit to those all around us- and specifically to those who we know may need a bit of positive energy. This can help feel like active engagement with the suffering and joys of those we know and care about. A ritualistic citation.  A remembrance. And at the same time, we carry on living our moments.

-Jane

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When The Heart is Right

For the past year, I have had an ongoing problem with a close family member. There has been disharmony, stress, frustration and heartache. And there has also been no easy way out, but to just be with it. In many ways, it has been a huge learning period and has really challenged my practice. For at the heart of the practice is a soft turning towards suffering, and every inch of my being has been screaming at me to run away and stick my head in the dirt.

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Then last week, I was reading Christopher Germer’s book ‘The Mindful Path to Self- Compassion’, and I stumbled upon a reference to a quotation from Thomas Merton who interpreted Chuang Tzu, the Taoist sage, as saying:

So, when the shoe fits

The foot is forgotten,

When the belt fits

The belly is forgotten,

When the heart is right

‘For’ and ‘against’ are forgotten.

Germer, p. 157

This koan of sorts stopped me in my tracks: specifically, the words ‘When the heart is right’.

When the family problem surfaced a year ago, I was just finishing teaching on a Level 2: Responding with Compassion course. At the end of this course, we usually take a Warrior of Compassion pledge after spending some time in reflection. My pledge, at the time, was to bring compassion and love to the situation and to meet the difficulty of the other with kindness. In this way, ‘the heart is right’.

In some ways, this Warrior of Compassion pledge is like The Compassionate Motivational System that I wrote about last week. And it really came in handy. Many times, when I felt I was being met with pettiness or when I felt hurt by my family member’s actions, I remembered my pledge and would not feel the need to react; instead, I tried to see things through their eyes and a natural forgiveness arose. Only, this pledge did not address my own suffering. I somehow had forgotten to apply it to ME and cracks began to appear.

Last week when my patience was wearing thin, I was feeling angry, hurt, frustrated and, once again, the need to run away and ignore the situation. Then I read the words ‘When the heart is right’, and because the context was focused on self-compassion, the missing piece of the puzzle seemed to fall into place.

I have been using various self-compassion practices throughout the difficulty, especially when I found myself experiencing anxiety or sadness when alone. However, I had not been using these practices in the face of the conflict- in the moments of reading a disturbing text or hearing hurtful words. In these moments of attack, I worked towards maintaining a compassionate attitude towards the other person. Their actions were coming from their suffering, not mine. Only last week, that compassion for the other seemed to disappear. I had had enough. I was at the end of my rope.

Then came the revelation. The heart needs to be right in relation to myself, too.  I sat back, placed my hands on my heart, and recited the phrases

May I be safe,

May I be peaceful,

May I be strong

I felt a warm shift of perspective and immediately decided that I had to revisit my Warrior of Compassion pledge. I needed to reinterpret and reword it to mean that I will not only bring compassion and kindness to the situation and the other, but I will also bring it to myself. All those months ago, I took a pledge that ignored my own needs. How had I missed this?

I feel so much lighter. And I now realize that my self-compassion needs to be a part of my compassion for other. The two are intrinsically linked. In considering the other’s suffering, I was obliviously ignoring my own. However, they both need to be met with kindness- at the same time.

So, I thought it would be good to set this week’s challenge as The Warrior of Compassion pledge. Perhaps, you might like to sit down, spending some time focusing on the breath and then reflect and make a pledge of compassion for both self and other.

Is there a difficult situation that you are in that could use a pledge of compassionate intention? Or a relationship in your life that might benefit for setting and engaging with some compassionate motivation for?

How would this intention and motivation sound if you spoke it out or wrote it out?

Maybe you have already done this exercise? But if you have, is there anything that you would change? Adjust? Add in?

-Jane

Let us know how your get on!

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Compassionate Motivational System

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Last night, we had Prof. Paul Gilbert join our Membership’s Live Online Teachings as part of our Pre-Conference Teaching Series. He gave a wonderful talk on the importance and relevance of Mindfulness, Intentionality and the Motivation needed in Cultivating compassion and developing the compassionate self.

Paul’s teachings were clear, funny and 100% relatable. For instance, he used the example of weight gain to demonstrate his teachings:

Mindfulness: Knowing that I am a bit sluggish because I am carrying a bit too much weight.

Intention: What do I want to do? I want to lose weight

Motivation: Why? Well, because I have high blood pressure, I want to be happy and healthy & the best that I can be for myself and others.

Cultivation: What are you going to do about it? How would your compassionate self view the situation?

Through this example, we can see how we might move from a difficulty to a solution that holds compassionate motivation and a compassionate response. He referred to this as a Compassionate Motivational System.

So this got me thinking- how might this formula help me, Jane, cultivate and develop MY compassionate self through engaging my Compassionate Motivational System?

Well this morning, I woke up feeling a bit grumpy and overwhelmed with the prospect of spending the weekend playing catch up on all of the housework that has been building throughout the week. Plus, my fridge is looking a bit bare- most tellingly, the kids are starting to complain.

My immediate thoughts were framed around the story that I am not paying enough attention to my domestics. Clearly, I am not going to get Mother of The Year award and that peanut butter and jam sandwich that my youngest is bringing to school for the 5th day in a row is going to rot his teeth and diminish his palate. All I could see was the many ways in which I was not measuring up to my mother’s standards. My God, when I grew up there would be thermoses of hot lunches lovingly prepared and satisfyingly consumed! I was failing.

So how can I reframe this experience? This chaos in my mind? How can I tap into my compassionate self?

Well according to Paul’s words of wisdom:

Mindfulness: Knowing that I am feeling overwhelmed with thoughts of ‘not good enough’ and a need to be better.

Intention: To be more kind to myself/to be more compassionate. To care for my family.

Motivation: Why? Well, so I do not give up. So, I do not feel so overwhelmed and bring any more suffering on to myself. So that I actually clean my house, get the groceries bought, rather than grab the kids and head out for the weekend, avoiding and putting off the chores for even longer.

Cultivation: How would my compassionate self view this situation? & What am I going to do about it? How would I most ideally like to see this difficulty and deal with it?

My compassionate self might see that in all actuality, the kids have had home cooked meals all week, and my youngest’s peanut butter and jam sandwich shows that he knows how to make a sandwich, something that I wasn’t doing until I left my mother’s home. I am teaching him independence and self-reliance.

The ashes around my woodstove is evidence of evenings of togetherness, doing homework, chatting and watching Netflix together. So rather than obsessively cleaning, I was sitting down with them, engaging with them.

And the fact that I did not have time to clean during the days is because I have a job that I love that contributes to my well-being and in turn theirs’.

In short, we all do things differently, but we all do the best we can. I am doing the best I can.

So, what am I going to do about my overwhelm? I am going to be kind to myself. I am going to walk to my favourite bluebell forest after work, sit quietly, mentally make a planbluebells for Saturday (one that includes slowly, one job at a time, getting through the house), and I am going to order my groceries online. Done and dusted!

Or…

“Jobs a good un’”, as my friend and colleague Helen likes to say.

According to Paul, when you introduce a Compassionate Motivational System, you reduce the amount of damage you do to yourself and others & it brings harmony to the chaos of the mind. And after doing this little exercise for myself, the chaos in my mind has become clear. I feel focused and most importantly, that self critic has moved on with limited damage.

So, my question for you is to ask yourself- Can you apply this formula to your own chaotic mind states? Can you move towards developing your compassionate self, and in turn, not only reduce your own suffering, but that of others?

This week’s challenge is to sit down, settle the mind and body through some mindful breathing and apply the formula of Mindfulness, Intention, Motivation and Cultivation to a small problem, or difficulty that has been plaguing the mind.

What does your compassionate self have to say about it?

-Jane

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Streee—tch

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had embodiment on my mind. My colleague Fay and I have been working on creating a new online course on mindful movement (The Stillness of Movement), last night’s Weekly Sit included a Compassionate Body Scan , and my practice has been focused on mindful walking, as of late.

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This is all down to Rick Hanson, who is a renowned neuropsychologist that happens to be speaking at our conference this June. He made a comment at last month’s membership Live Online Teaching that compared cultivating a mind/body relationship to that of a horse and its rider: a relationship that demands patience, tenderness and trust. This analogy has been nagging (no pun intended) at me ever since. I need to put more energy into my mind/body relationship.

In fact, it is not hard to realize that my body is always speaking to me, I am just not always listening.

For instance, my kids have been on Easter holidays these past few weeks, and over the long weekend we would ALL have long lie-ins, which means extra time spent in bed. After a couple of days of this, my hip was starting to ache with a pain spreading across my back and down my leg. My sciatica was screaming ‘Get out of bed and MOVE’.  I ignored it for the most part, as I do. Until on day 3 of lie ins, I had this flash memory back to the last time I experienced sciatica pain, a time where I spent a lot of time in bed. I realized that this was my body telling me that it needed to move. Interestingly, once I did listen, I felt more energetic and much better in myself. I also happened to catch the only moments of sunshine that appear between 5 and 8am on a typical Wicklow day.  Somehow, those clouds roll in as the day progresses!!

So how can we put more energy into cultivating this mind/body relationship?

Well this week, on top of doing more mindful movement through my walking practice (a practice you can do ANYWHERE), I have been doing what I like to call the 2 minute stretch.  A few times a day, and especially if I have been sitting for any length of time, I stand up and stretch according the demands of my body. It requires me to stand and close my eyes, focusing on the breath for a few moments, and then trusting that my body will lead my movement- whether it be to slowly rotate my shoulders, which then indicates if my neck needs some attention, or my back, and before I know it, I am instinctively moving in response to what my body is telling me. I am usually quite happy that no one can see me as these movements aren’t always pretty. But it always feels great- and because I am listening to my own body, I never push it, only respond.

So this week’s challenge is to do the 2 minute stretch as often as feels necessary. Please remember to bring kindness and compassion to your body, and to not force anything. We’re simply trying to bring some soothing tenderness: a gift from mind to body and back again.

-Jane

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Oestre: Planting Seeds

Last night, I visited a friend whose spiritual life is centred around the seasons and the earth. In the past, we have celebrated many equinoxes and solstices together through the building of a fire, sharing a meal and usually engaging in some symbolic action such as throwing a stick on the fire to represent all that we let go of, while at the same time inviting what we would like in.

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So, it came as no surprise that after our dinner  my friend suggested lighting the winter clippings and having a bonfire for Oestre, being the weekend that is in it.  I was a bit caught off guard as I didn’t expect a fire- it wasn’t on the cards. I didn’t have my warm clothes or wellies for a trip down the garden. All the same, we looked at each other in a half smile/ half laugh and said, ‘Sod it- let’s do it!’.

So who or what is Oestre?

Oestre is a Germanic Goddess who represents fertility, the return of life and growth to the earth. So all of those traditional Easter symbols, such as eggs, bunnies and flowers have been associated and stem from Oestre, ( sometimes spelled Eostre). In some ways, the masses in the west have been paying homage to her for centuries without even knowing it.

My friend, as part of our non- official ritual, explained these significances, as well as highlighted the fact that what we really need to be doing this weekend is planting. Planting seeds of ideas, projects, intentions, (which we most certainly did as we spent a time in silence, simply watching the fire) but also actually planting seeds or potting plants. He explained that while we won’t see the fruit of these seeds for a few months, we need to be laying the groundwork now.

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So, as it is Easter, I thought it would be fitting to take this opportunity to set the weekly challenge to one of planting seeds. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen master who has spent his whole life bringing Mindfulness to people, encourages his students to ‘plant the seeds of Mindfulness’. Like seeds, Mindfulness is a practice that needs time to land, germinate, grow and blossom. It is a practice that needs to be nurtured and nourished in order for it to bare fruit.

Perhaps this week we can ask the question of ‘how might I plant the seeds of Mindfulness in my life? What steps do I need to take to nurture and nourish my practice?

Then it might be helpful to write down any ideas that come up in response to the question. Maybe you might like to set a practice schedule, or commit to a 3 minute breathing space every lunch hour, or maybe to log on to the weekly sit or register for a course you’ve always been wanting to take.

Or, maybe it is to go the garden centre, pick up some vegetable seeds or flowers plants and spend an afternoon mindfully in the garden.

Happy Easter and Happy planting!

-Jane

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