Friday, July 29, 2011


Originally, I made the meditation nook in the office corner, beneath a window. For a few weeks I've been sitting there in the mornings, mid-afternoon, and evening. It's been noisy, but bearable. There is the railroad tracks and the marta rail line, there are cars passing by, neighbors using electric saws, hammers, leaf blowers. I've been trying to use these as meditation ques to dig deeper into concentration. For the most part, I've been successful. Until I started noticing car stereos. Even these wouldn't have been so bad if it weren't for that one car just a few days ago, blasting at full decible that awful screaming song from ten years ago whose lyrics yell as follows: "I hate everything about you." What band was that? A perfect circle?

What an awful mantra to get stuck in one's head! So, I decided it might be a good idea to experiment with moving the meditation spot to a quieter, more peaceful room. We have a hallway that we don't use because we enter and exit the house from the back rather than from the front. Initially, we were thinking we'd use the space for extra storage -- sort of as a walk-in closet. It's perfect in that the hallway closes off with two doors, making it rather private. So at the last minute this afternoon, just before work, I pulled all of the junk out of the closet and set to decorating it for meditation. I added a small shrine, hung my favorite antique tapestry, and lit incense to bless the space. Though there are no vents for the air conditioning in there, but it will be an experiment worth trying in the search for the right spot to sit.

In other experiments, here is a silly little painting I slapped together this week at a painting class downtown. My sister talked me into it and we had a blast! The colors seem a bit too tropical, but I enjoy seeing the art that comes out of me. It's always a surprise. Now it, too, is hanging in the new meditation area.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Do What's Right For You

I've found many great sources for guidance lately. First and foremost, Bhante G's book Mindfulness in Plain English. Never before has any one person put the how-to of meditation practice into such easily accessible terms. He writes about it so clearly, with a certain pointed simplicity that is actually incredibly profound.

This website  also contains a wonderful wealth of guidance and inspiration. There is an enormous collection of talks by one of my very favorite dhamma teachers, Ayya Khema. Listening to one of her talks today gave me just that one tiny little nudge in the direction I need and it has made all the difference.

Having a plethera of dhamma writings at one's disposal is a real gift and blessing. At the same time, it can also have its downside. We can get caught up in one teaching, in one method, in one way of doing things because we read about it and it said "this is the way to concentration! you must do this!" that we actually hem ourselves in and become bound and stuck in the practice. Ironic, isn't it?

This is exactly where I was heading. Stifling myself. Trying to hard to concentrate on those nostrils, just watch the nostril, feel the nostril!, that everything started to become stale and lifeless. Where did the joy go that I so recently knew?

Ayya Khema says in her talk that there are so many methods for attaining concentration. Do what works for you! Did I really needed to be reminded of this very simple fact? Yes, yes I sure did. Do what works for you.

What works for me is sitting down, closing my eyes, touching the breath lightly with my mind, and tapping right into that inner experience of simple being. What about that concentration method of noticing the nostrils? It's still there, but it's not the absolute, total, and complete focus. I'm not straining my brain to watch it. It's just there. Easy. So I let go of it, just a little, just enough to feel the being-ness that is here, constantly, peacefully abiding inside. That's what works for me. That's where the peace lives, the loving-kindness, and the insight.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Faith in Ourselves

Kudzu antique store on the way to the dekalb farmer's market has a special way of tugging at my heart's desires. After much successful suppression, the husband and I finally gave in and went paroosing. The little birdie mirror above won me over completely! Simple. Elegant. Charming.

Continuing the "mirror motif," as J has affectionately called our current obsession with mirrors in unexpected places, we also discovered this piece to complete the dining room ensemble.

On another, more thoughtful note, we discovered our very first tomato sproutling. As previously mentioned, there are three plants, each of a different tomato variety. For weeks now we have watched two of the tomato plants take off to the sky, while one lingered sadly behind -- barely growing at all. We were afraid it'd end up a dud. Despite our best efforst, despite sufficient sunlight, good healthy soil, and constant watering, our faith in this one runt of the litter threatened to wane.

Wouldn't you know it.... that little runt tomato plant is the first of the three to bare its fruit.

It's easy to lose faith. It's essential to keep it. This tomato plant is reminding me of a good and valuable lesson aptly timed for my path at this moment. Have faith in yourself, in your ability to grow and progress. Have faith in your natural abilities. Believe that there is blue sky behind the clouds, even if you cannot yet see it. Meditation can be such a challenge, and if it does not bare fruit quickly we may begin to doubt it and our ability to be successful with it. But if all of the right ingredients are there -- sunlight, diligent watering, careful pruning, and a healthy dose of love and attention -- growth will come. It's the natural law of the universe.

Have faith in yourself! It is one of the strongest currents that will pull you through.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Where I Go

...."Well I go to the river to soothe my mind, ponder over these crazy days of my life. Sit and watch the river flow." Natalie Merchant

This is the meditation hall at the women's retreat. I pulled an older photo from the website. There've been changes since. The carpet is no longer there, having been replaced by a smooth white cement floor which illuminates the room in a gorgeous, bright way that helps light up the mind. The way the light bounces from all directions in the room, it stimulates the mind when the eyes are closed to feel as though you are awake, aware, and instantly present.

The retreat last week was nothing short of amazing. It nurished me, deepened me, broke open my heart, and planted both of my feet firmly on the path. I feel I've talked so much about it in the last few days since being home that I find it hard to write about it now. So I'll move more into the present.

The evening I returned home was only hours following my ordination by Bhante in the eight lifetime precepts. The ceremony I took part in was so powerful. I felt totally gripped by the spirit in ways that are difficult to articulate. The most magical moment for me was immediately following the precepts, when I'd been given my pali name, had a mindfulness string tied to my wrist and a madallion placed around my neck. I crawled back to my meditation cushion at the feet of Bhante G, Ayya S and Sayalay S, with the other retreatents behind me. Bhante then began leading everyone else through the five precepts, and I closed my eyes, falling fast and deep into metta absorption. My mind was so clear and relaxed, and my entire being glowed with love and warmth for my sisters taking their five precepts. I wished them courage and strength on their path, love and happiness in their hearts, and calm, peaceful minds.

It was this final meditation at the monastery, my last and most natural (and most profoundly real), which followed me back home and transformed me. The moment I walked in the front door the extent to which I had changed and was at that moment wide open and radiating love, was so utterly poignant. I looked at my husband and as we spoke I could see him, truly see him. I felt so much love flowing through me that evening that even though I'd been awake for 22 hours, having done the entire ceremony, meditated, and drove 10 hours home, I longed with all my heart to simply go right into meditation for the rest of the night and into the dawn. The moon was full and bright in the kitchen window. I looked up into the glowing sky and felt pure exstacy, my vision somehow wider at the perifery.

I knew it would fade with time. It had to, because that is the nature of all things. Until that space has been cultivated and stabilized as a mind habit through continual daily meditation -- which may take years -- it can only stay for a little while. And this is part of the dhamma, isn't it? That all things are impermanent. That we can hold nothing, for everything, every single particle of existence, is in constant movement, flux, and flow.

And so, some meditations are productive, while some are not. I've been finding lately that my morning sessions are more of a challenge, while the evenings are more substantial and accessible. I struggle. Sometimes mindfulness is so easily available. Sometimes sitting is like repeatedly almost falling into a sleepy dream, which is the opposite of mindfulness and not meditation. I know that this too, must be taken up and used in the practice, but it is hard not to react, to not add in a sense of aversion or frustration.

It will take some more time, and some thoughtful exerpimenting, to find how the practice will fit into my life here in the city, which is drastically different from the peace and tranquility I found in the mountains last weekend. Rousing my energy up there was easier, even at 430am every morning. Here, it is much more difficult. Lethargy weighs more in the morning. Distractions are in abundance.

But when it's good, it's been real good. Like last night, coming home from spending the evening with my best friend, my heart so warm and open with love, melted and soft inside. I went right to the cushion and fell easily into a calm, concentrated space. I felt I could have stayed there for hours...

Friday, July 8, 2011

A foot and a half on the path

I meant to bring my camera along for this trip. It was the one thing I forgot. There's always the last resort camera phone! 

I'm 4 hours south of my destination, in a small bed and breakfast outside of Roanoke, Virginia. It's lovely here. I enjoyed a peaceful picnic on this patio, next to a little pond with a waterfall. There is a very old garden of boxwoods, planted in rows that form a maze. I've been meaning to walk through it, but may not get around to that this trip.

The decision to stay here was a spontaneous one. Something about it felt much better than staying in a cheap motel. The company I find myself in is interesting. I sat at the dining room table this morning with a set of identical twins -- ladies in their late 50's or so. There was a gentleman from the UK with wonderfully fluffy red hair and a splendid accent. The inn-keeper, Kathy, spoke this morning about death and how she feels she is fine to die as long as she's been "saved." Her cousin, Dawn, another small southern woman in her sixties, is the one person here with whom I've formed an affectionate bond. She's a sweet ole gal... sneaks off to smoke on the porch where I tuck myself to read Thich Nhat Hanh. I can tell that her and Kathy keep trying to get a beed on me -- why I'm there, a young woman, traveling alone... where I'm going and what I'm up to. Dawn asks me this morning, "how did you manage to get out without the husband?" to which I replied, "Oh, he didn't really want to come." She raised her eyebrow gloriously with a wicked smile. I just laugh. And, given Kathy's breakfast conversation on dying and being saved by Jesus, well, one could easily see why I've kept my travels to the buddhist monastery my little secret. It's really rather funny to me to be such an intriqueing figure for these little southern chics! haha

On a more serious note, I'm trying to shore up my concentration for the trip ahead. What will be the goal of my practice for the week? I stumbled upon this quote today by Hanh, and it has helped to situatate me on the path:

"In the first six months, try only to build up your power of concentration, to create an inner calmness and serene joy. You will shake off anxiety, enjoy total rest, and quiet your mind. You will be refreshed and gain a broader, clearer view of things, and deepen and strengthen the love in yourself. And you will be able to respond more helpfully to all around you."

The ironic thing is that Ayya Khema says a bit of the opposite in her book I'm reading. She says that people often get too comfortable with the peace and tranquility in retreat... that it's important to go deeper with our practice.

However, the biggest concern for me at this moment is how to open my heart. I am most aware right now of how closed I can often be to the world: feeling restricted, fearful, clam-like. I'd like to sit more mindfully with the awareness of interdependence, seeing always the interconnectivity I have with others. I think my goals should be to establish harmony and love within my self, to build a strong, peaceful foundation along with quiet and calm in the mind. Then, from there, apply concentration and insight to the concept of no-self so that I may penetrate the illusion of self boundaries.

Here I go! Ready or not. A foot and a half on the path....

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Despite what it may say, there are no herbs in this box! These are actually shamrocks that I saved from the dumpster at work. They love this box and have really flourished since moving to our new home. Shamrocks are really beautiful and have interesting cycles. When the sun goes down their kite-like leaves fold together and close for the night. In the morning, they open wide and bloom new tiny white flowers.

This box does have herbs growing. I made the poor decision of planting mint beside my rosemary here. As you can see, the mint is already exploding with growth. The rosemary will need to be transplanted soon to another, more private home.

Here is one of my three tomato plants. I believe this is the heirloom tomato plant. The other two are cherry tomatoes, and then your basic garden variety.

I find myself in an interesting space today. I'm trying to feel my way into the emotions, trying to open them up the way the sun opens those lucious green leaves of the shamrock by shining light directly on them. Yesterday when I sat in meditation I focused on loving-kindness (metta). I imagined the new child coming into the world for J and his wife M. I felt overwhelming joy and happiness and love for the both of them, for the incredible gift they are sharing together. It was a wonderful session because these thoughts and feelings towards J & M were quite unexpected and unplanned.

Last night as I lay awake waiting for Jason to come home I began to experience panic and fear pretty strongly. I don't know what overcame me. Logic told me that of course he was just working his normal closing hours, and likely doing inventory at the end of the night, which was why he wasn't home yet by 2am. But I felt paralyzed by fear anyway.

Today, I wonder if what I felt was something else. Was I tapping into another's emotions perhaps? Was J feeling fear and anxiety, perhaps even panic of the coming child with M? Were they at that moment in the throws and shadows of the unknown, mysterious, and painful labor process? I pondered this in meditation this morning, and experienced a totally different set of emotions than the previous day's joy. Instead, I became aware of gripping sadness. I stayed with the sadness and dwelt in it for a while, feeling its contours and asking with openness what it meant and from where it came. The more I opened to it the more I began to see its dynamism -- that sadness and pain is not a one-sided emotion. It has a shape with sides, and on its most opposite side there is love. Great love. And profound intimacy. It is the intimacy which bears a sharp quality, which cuts me deep with a two-sided blade of both love and sorrow. I do miss, long for, and ache over the often lack of intimacy in my life right now. I am good at ignoring it, and skilled at covering it over with laughter and humor. But when I am quiet and alone, it comes out and surrounds me like a wide, dark, and haunting room.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Life is Sweet

This is our new addition to the family: Cleveland the moo moo kitty. He's wonderfully sweet, playful, intelligent, and healthy(!). He brings joy to our lives and stirs gentle thoughts of children.

I've been trying my hand at scones lately, thanks to Jessica's splendidly quick and easy recipe. The first batch I made was better than the second. My initial try yeilded whole wheat, orange-zested peach scones. They were absolutley perfect! The second batch, pictured here, were not quite as successful. I tried to prepare them by memory and I think I may have skimped on the buttermilk. Was it half a cup or a whole cup? These little biscuits are a tad dry.... which is alright. It can easily be made up for by dunking them in the coffee!

Our living room is finally coming together. Our new couch arrived; just in time for visitors! We loved having Scott stay with us. He and Jason talked into the night about comics and philosophy and theology... it was fascinating to see the two boys completely nerd-out together.

I've been preparing for my journey north next week to the monastery. Some sitting sessions have been a real struggle, others have been easier and more love-filled. I am a little worried that I haven't been able to sit for longer than 30 minutes in any given time. Next week I will be sitting with everyone for hours at a time! Hopefully it will be easier to fall into once I am surrounded by the forrest with no work to be done, with nothing pressing on me, no contacts with the internet-world, the phone, no kitten nipping at my toes. There will be other distractions I'm sure -- the mind, the body -- but I can meet those, a moment at a time.