Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Ups and Downs of the Holiday Season

Photo credit: MrSickboy50 from morguefile.com

Today's article is a guest post from Gregg Krech. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to take a weekend workshop with Gregg on Naikan, which is a powerful practice of self reflection and cultivating gratitude with roots in Jodo Shinshu Buddhist teachings. The basic practice is deceptively simple. You focus on your interactions during the day, and take time to reflect on the answers to each of three questions.

What have I received from others?

What have I given to others?

What troubles and difficulties have I caused to others?

You can do this focusing on a single person, group of people (like family, friends, or co-workers), or you can bring in all your interactions during the day.

After that workshop, I did daily Naikan reflections for over a year and a half. Since then, I revive the practice whenever I feel like I've lost touch with the numerous gifts coming into my life, even during difficult times. My life has shifted as a result of this work, and I'm grateful to Gregg for having introduced us to it during that workshop, and also for his book on Naikan, which explores the topic more in depth.

I hope you enjoy Gregg's timely piece today. Given how challenging the holiday season can be for many folks, I think this exploration of an alternative set of "three poisons" is a helpful antidote.

The Ups and Downs of the Holiday Season

by Gregg Krech

One of the most common messages in a holiday card is, “Happy Holidays.” We generally expect the holidays to be joyful and happy. We hear uplifting Christmas music and we have images of presents under Christmas trees, menorahs and Santa Claus. But the reality of the holiday season is a bit different. More of a mix of up and down moods and moments. Along with the Christmas music there are financial pressures. There are also crowded stores, heavy traffic, family infighting, and a certain amount of loneliness. When we find ourselves feeling depressed, overwhelmed or in despair, we think, “What’s wrong with me – it’s the holiday season? I’m supposed to feel good.” But we don’t – at least not all the time.

Let’s look at what I call the Three Poisons:




How do they affect our experience of the holiday season?

Any time we have high expectations (actually, any expectations at all) we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. What are your expectations going into the holidays?:

• Everybody in the family should get along with one another.
• I should give people I love lots of nice presents and I should also receive lots of nice presents.
• I should send out and receive holiday cards.
• There should be wonderful decorations and lovely white snow (Note: I live in Vermont).
• I should feel grateful and joyful and other people should be cheerful and pleasant.

These are just a few examples. See if you can discover your own underlying expectations. When you have a moment in which you feel disappointed or angry, can you investigate the expectation you have that hasn’t been met?

Realistically, we can’t simply tell ourselves to drop our expectations. We don’t have that kind of control over our minds and hearts. What we can do is to bring an awareness to how our expectations create disappointment, resentment and even anger. We can become conscious of how our expectations often poison our ability to simply enjoy what life places in our path. That awareness itself can help us to better accept situations that would otherwise push our buttons.

The second poison is control. Many of us use the holidays as a time for reconnecting with our families including those family members who would be doing so much better if they would just take our advice about how to fix their lives.

Of course they haven't in the past, but this might just be the time they're ready to listen and "see the light." As an alternative, why not leave our teacher/counselor hat in the closet and just concentrate on being a loving son/sister/cousin/parent. We can play this role quite well without ever giving advice. And if someone else is trying to fix your life, well, just listen, thank them for their concern, and perhaps ask them if they'd like to go outside and help feed the birds or make a snowman.

Expectations are often the precursor to control. We have an idea of how we want things to turn out and now it is up to us to orchestrate the situation to make sure that happens. There’s nothing wrong with trying to host a nice dinner or party, but we have to allow life to unfold in its own way. There is a term in Japanese – jiriki. It means self-power. Making a conscious effort and taking action can be valuable. But trying to control the outcome is a guaranteed formulae for stress, anxiety and, ultimately, disappointment.

So use the holiday season as an opportunity to practice acceptance – it’s an undervalued quality that most of us could benefit from.

Finally, there’s the third poison of mindlessness – specifically the kind of mindlessness that comes from rushing. The more we’re in a hurry, the more our minds tend to abandon the present moment and think about what hasn’t happened yet. So we need to find a way to anchor ourselves in the present, even on busy days when there’s so much to do. When I traveled with Thich Nhat Hanh in the 1980’s, he taught us to use the ringing of the phone or a red stoplight as a cue for pausing and coming back to our breath. You can use this strategy with any external cue, or create one yourself with an app on your phone. The idea is to have a regular system for pausing and reconnecting with what’s happening right now.

In Japanese Psychology we learn not only to reconnect with the present, but also to reconnect with the world around us instead of getting stuck in our heads. So another way to enrich your holiday experience is to practice using your senses. Touch and smell the world around you. Close your eyes and just listen. Taste your food instead of reading the news while you eat. Self-focused attention is associated with almost every psychological disorder, so use the holidays as a way of engaging with the world around you.

When you find yourself caught up in the ups and downs of the holidays, just enjoy the ride. The bouncing is good for your spiritual muscles. And if you find yourself out of breath – that’s wonderful. It means your attention is in the right place.

Gregg Krech has been studying and teaching Japanese Psychology for 27 years and is the author of several books including, The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology (2014). He is currently conducting an online retreat for Tricycle magazine on the theme of Self-Reflection and Gratitude. In January, he will be teaching a distance learning program for the ToDo Institute called Living on Purpose as a way of launching the new year.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Letting Your Opinions Fly Like Birds

We humans tend to cherish our opinions. Sometimes, we'll do anything to either protect them or make them known in the world. It can get so bad that people will destroy relationships and even kill each other over their differences.

It doesn't have to be this way.

"If you wish to see the truth,
then hold no opinions for or against anything."

"Trust in Mind" (Xinxinming), Zen Master Seng Ts'an

Having no opinions at all about anything is the opposite of being strongly opinionated. And on the surface, it appears that these lines are directing us to have no opinions. Which really isn't a much better position.

However, that's not what the poet is advocating here.

Take a look at those first words - "If you wish to see the truth." How often do you truly wish to see the truth? And how often do you do anything in your power to turn away from it?

This line seems to point at the choice that's required of each of us in every moment to want to see the truth. We have to aim ourselves in the right direction. Or, more accurately, allow ourselves to be aimed in the right direction by life itself. If we're too busy being obstructionists, or propping up arguments about ourselves and others, there's no room for the truth to seep in.

In the second part of the line, the word "hold" stands out. Recently, I was in a conversation about politics, and felt myself holding tightly to my particular opinion. I noticed how that tightness manifested in my shoulders and lower back, and how the guy I was talking with seemed to be mirroring me - tightening around his own opinion. So, I decided to pull back, and let go of the point I was trying to make. We continued to talk, and I fairly quickly experienced an uncoiling of that tightness as breath calmed, and my need to be right diminished.

This letting go didn't mean I gave up what I thought and went along with his view. It meant that I stopped trying to control the outcome of the conversation, and allowed our differences to be present in the same space.

How can you treat all opinions like this? Let them be birds, floating across the mind's landscape: accessible, able to be conveyed, but also free to pass on through at any time. If you do so, it's more likely that whatever truth contained within will be able to come forth and shine.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Buddhist Tensions: the Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong

Picking Flowers

If you want to pick flowers, you have to hike.
Climbing up, don't worry about your weary bones.
Pluck the low branches, pull down the high.
Enjoy alike the spent blossoms, the tight buds.

Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1822 / Vietnam)

Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong was a powerfully independent and outspoken woman living at a time when that was very rare. The energy and mastery of her poetry was so high that it helped elevate the status of Vietnamese to that of a literary language. Although her words are infused with Buddhist understandings and images, Ho Xuan Huong had a defiant, highly critical relationship with the Buddhism of her native Vietnam.

One of the tension points present in her work revolves around sex and sexuality. She was a frequent critic of the pious sounding Vietnamese monks who scoffed at women expressing themselves sexually, but then courted and slept with female devotees and concubines. In addition, she fiercely questioned the double standards of a patriarchal society where men did as they pleased when it came to romantic relationships, while women were confined to roles of dutiful quietude.

Ho Xuan Huong was anything but quiet about sexuality, as the following poem attests.


Praise whoever raised these poles
for some to swing while others watch.

A boy pumps, then arcs his back.
The shapely girl shoves up her hips.

Four pink trousers flapping hard,
two pairs of legs stretched side by side.

Spring games. Who hasn't known them?
Swingposts removed, the holes lie empty.

Many of Ho Xuan Huong's poems read like expressions of freedom. Not longing for it, but actually living and breathing it. If you want to pick flowers, you have to hike. Climbing up, don't worry about your weary bones. Literally, there's the experience of climbing up a hill or mountain. Where I'm living right now, there is a small mountain that the locals like to climb to get exercise and look out over the city in the valley below. I have climbed to the top multiple times. Every time, there has been a point where I consciously chose to be ok with having some aches and pains, and then - as if by magic - I experienced a jolt of renewed energy that helped me reach the summit. Metaphorically, the same lines of the poem can taken as a directive for life. If you want to reach your dreams, you have to let go of fretting and obsessing over every, little obstacle that appears along the way.

As many great poets do, Ho Xuan Huong captures beautifully the fleeting quality of our lives. Particularly that of high moments, and how a wrong decision while on top of the mountain can bring you tumbling down. In another poem laden with sexual images and tension, Huong offers both high level pleasure and a caution to not go too far.

The Jackfruit

I am like a jackfruit on the tree.
To taste you must plug me quick, while fresh:
the skin rough, the pulp thick, yes,
but oh, I warn you against touching --
the rich juice will gush and stain your hands

Beyond pleasure, the richness of the natural world explodes from Huong's poems. Clearly in love with all the wonders of the waxing seasons, spring and summer, she readily invokes the beauty and vibrancy of each in her words.

Spring-Watching Pavilion

A gentle spring evening arrives
airily, unclouded by worldly dust.

Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave.
We see heaven upside-down in sad puddles.

Love's vast sea cannot be emptied.
And springs of grace flow easily everywhere.

Where is nirvana?
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten

Here, Huong offers a poem that appears to be passive, but actually is active and full of tension. A gentle, somewhat melancholy start paired with a fierce, declarative ending. Talk of sadness coupled with the deepest expression of love itself.

Overall, she leaves us with an overriding message pointing directly to spiritual liberation. One that isn't separated from the seemingly mundane and material world around us. The pulpy jackfruit is love. The sad puddles are love. The hike to pick flowers is love.

And love is liberation. Available to all, regardless of who we are perceived to be (or not be) in the world.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Study the Whole Self, Not the Marketed Self

Photo credit: mensatic from morguefile.com

Marketing of the self. Aren't we taught to do that pretty early on in life? You gotta stand out or you'll be forgotten, right? You better promote or you will never be successful, right?

I believe there is a double bind around all of this in modern societies. The human tendency to self cherish is the main dish. Humans have been eating it, probably since the beginning of our species. In addition to the main dish is a set of side dishes called consumerism, capitalism, and commodification. Ever seductive, they add endless flavors and textures onto the main dish. I suppose it might be the case that plain old self cherishing gets kind of dull after awhile. It's so much more exciting to be the hot, new product on the block. Or the respected, reliable old one.

The pressure to be a product is damn strong, so much so that even spiritual teachers are falling for it in droves. Being a person with some wisdom mixed with a bag full of delusion doesn't feel good enough. Being a person who takes a shit and can't quite wipe it all clean isn't sexy enough. Being a person who is articulate one minute, and has nothing helpful to say the next just doesn't cut it. And so, we end up with teachers with trademarks at the end of their names. Teachers who spew endless amounts of flowery language. Teachers who market themselves as healers, and then end up abusing the hell out of anyone who gets close to them.

It is any wonder that so many of us are so confused in this life?

Dogen said we need to study the self to forget the self and be liberated by the whole of the universe. This is a great teaching ... and if you think that the self doesn't include the world around you, you're missing the boat. If you think the self doesn't include the racism, sexism, classism, consumerism, warfare, and violence done in the name of religion that we see going on every day, you're simply not studying the self.

I think a lot of Buddhist folks end up studying the "marketed self," as opposed to the whole self. The marketed self might be full of emotional warts and conflicted narratives, but it somehow is treated as a stand alone object, outside of the culture of the society it lives in. This is particularly the case for folks living fairly privileged lives. It's easy to ignore that the murder of black folks in the streets by police officers is just as much about you as the feelings you've held for 30 years about the challenges you had in your childhood.

Some people get really irritated with me when I start talking about systems and collective conditions. Speaking up about white supremacy and systemic racism in white dominated Buddhist centers, for example, tends to create some upset and discomfort. People say things like "spiritual practice is about you. Focus on yourself and stop pointing the finger at others." But this isn't about being petty and judgmental. It's about cultivating an awareness of the larger patterns that are influencing our thinking and behavior. About seeing much of what we see as "normal" and "true" isn't, and that to the extent that we continue mindlessly eating it, we'll be used and controlled by it. And finally, it's about being willing to change and act in support of liberation for all, not just the privileged few.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Green Zen

Photo credit: schmitee from morguefile.com

Today's post comes from my herbal medicine blog at NGTHerbals. Here is an excerpt.

Sometime in the middle of the 8th century, a Zen hermit living in China penned a now famous poem entitled "Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage." It begins with the following lines:

"I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value.

After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.

When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.

Now it's been lived in - covered by weeds."

Whenever I work with the plants, I try and remember these words. The relaxed attitude about it all. The lack of fixation on certain things having value. The surrender to the fact that no matter what, there are always weeds. All around us, and inside our minds as well.

I try and remember, but more often than not I forget. Or loose track while I pick, pluck, and hack away, claiming the burdock roots for their liver health giving properties, while thrusting away the overgrown grape vines that have no clear use.

If we truly want to be healed and liberated, we need to bow down to the mystery of it all.

Friday, June 19, 2015

On Charleston, Terrorism, and the Future of America

Photo credit: erdenebayar from morguefile.com

Nothing short of an extended, ritual purification and reconciliation will do at this point. Removing and burning Confederate flags is only a starting point. We must burn the entire house of white supremacy to the ground. Every last root needs to be dug up, and held high to the sky until the sun of our hearts dries it to a crisp. All the laws, institutions, and national myths that uphold a largely white elite, and pit the rest of us against each other, must be taken down to the river of our tears and drowned forever.

Remembering, or perhaps learning for the first time, that the terrorism of Dylan Roof is the terrorism of Eric Casebolt is the terrorism of Darren Wilson is the terrorism of your white neighbor, white co-worker, white family member blaming black and brown folks for the ceaseless police violence against them is the terrorism of Monsanto the terrorism of Koch Industries the terrorism of Lockheed Martin the terrorism of Goldman Sachs the terrorism of Wells Fargo the terrorism of US Bank the terrorism of Corrections Corporation of America is the terrorism of Wall Street, J Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue is the terrorism of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is the terrorism of a Calvinistic prison system is the terrorism of Pearson Education, CASAS, and the hegemony of standardized testing is the terrorism of endless privatizing of public lands is the terrorism of gentrification is the terrorism of Fox News, NBC Nightly News, CNN, ABC, CBS, the TImes, the Post, the Tribune, the USA Today is terrorism. Beneath the gloss, grit, and surface grime, we are terrorism.

And that's ultimately what we will be as a nation. Until we find a way to reconcile with each other and with the Earth that is our home, our subsistence, our very breath.

Those of us who benefit the most under the current system in particular are being called upon to turn away from the terrorism that built this place. To turn and keep our hearts and minds in the direction of justice for all those who suffer so mightily.

Let's remember that everyone's liberation is intimately tied together. Let's stoke the furnace of a love that moves mountains, even if it takes lifetimes to accomplish.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

On Systemic Racism, White American Buddhism, and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

Unless you've been totally asleep or hiding under a rock, you're probably aware of the unrest in Baltimore over the police murder of Freddie Grey. Odds are that some of you are upset about the property damage that happened during the peak of the protests, and are amongst those calling for peace, just as was the case last fall when protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri.

Here's what I think. The United States is, by design, a nation of violence. It was born through the execution of genocide against Native populations, and was built in large part via theft and slave labor. Our domestic and foreign policy continues to be driven by endless forms of theft and violence, and people of color across the globe bear the brunt of it.

Under these conditions, we should be applauding the fact that the vast majority of protests in Baltimore and elsewhere across the nation in recent weeks have been non-violent. Furthermore, white Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners would do well to restrain themselves from finger wagging at people of color led social movements that aren't conforming to their ideas about "Right action."

I wrote the following in response to some comments on a post made by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship on their Facebook page a few days ago.

White supremacy has infected the majority of white people living in the US to the point where they almost instinctively side with the mostly white ruling class. Otherwise known as the 1%.

Every last calm, rational, dare I say "peaceful" attempt by people of color and their allies to illuminate the endless ways in which the three interlocked poisons of white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism is met with another triple treasure: minimizing, denying, and victim blaming.

And when the heat turns up to the level of revolt, including property damage and injuries, it's always fierce verbal resistance from the white masses, a ratcheting up of the oppressiveness from the state, and even more minimizing, denying, and victim blaming.

White Buddhists have a fondness for making appeals for non-violence, and yet far too few are actively working to dismantle white supremacy, and the oppressive economic and social systems that were built to keep it in place, keep us divided, and guarantee that the ruling class stays in place.

In meditation, we're often cued to watch for and unearth our habitual patterns. I have watched these patterns within the US Buddhist community and in the nation as whole unfold for a good generation now, but our history as a nation is built on this kind of call and response. There's never been a house that wasn't thoroughly divided, and riddled with the bullets of inequity, injustice, and systemic, cold blooded murders in the name of maintaining order. Whatever non-violent action has come in the past 500 years - and there has been much - has ALWAYS come against the odds, on land and air so saturated with violence that everything, right down to our water tables, is poisoned.

If you're feeling compelled to condemn the breaking of windows, the burning of buildings, "black on black crime," the injuring of police officers, etc - how about instead taking a pause, and doing some deep reflection on the legacy of this nation. On the endless cycles of violence here and abroad that have led us to today. On all the ways in which the white supremacy that Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and so many others were resisting in Baltimore well over a century ago is the same white supremacy the protesters are resisting today.

BPF's post contains an article from The Atlantic well worth the read.

I'd like to that it's vitally important to remember that the non-violent social movements that many of us uphold as models - such as the U.S. Civil Rights movement - took years, if not decades to develop. And along the way, there were uprisings that included property damage, injuries, and even deaths. Living in a society that does everything in its power to divide and oppress, and make war and violent conflict seem normal and inevitable, every generation needs to learn anew how to build sustained movements grounded in a diversity of non-violent tactics.

In addition, every new social movement is forced to counter the propaganda of the elite, which aims to render all tactics of liberation as violence. For example, many in the general public, especially amongst white folks, saw the freeway blocking or pop up lunch demonstrations in the months following the Ferguson uprising as illegitimate or somehow worthy of condemnation. Never mind that these are precisely the kind of non-violent tactics necessary to disrupt the narratives of white supremacy and get people talking about possible solutions.

When all other avenues of gaining attention and working to address grievances are shut down, is it any wonder that people sometimes resort to property destruction and physical conflict?

Like many of you, I long for a sustained social movement built on non-violence that leads us towards liberation for all. Let's make the effort to be allies to each other. Instead of assuming the worst of people that are out in the streets fighting for their rights, lets have a more generous understanding of what's going on. Which includes a knowing that there are already many individuals and groups within a movement like BlackLivesMatter working to build creative responses based in non-violent action. The mainstream media would have you believe otherwise, but then again, they're owned and operated by the very people that keep us divided and fighting amongst each other.

Yesterday, I was a part of our annual May Day march in Minneapolis (see photo), which this year merged with a rally and march for BlackLivesMatter. The crowd was highly diverse, and speaker after speaker pointed to the beautiful possibilities that could become reality if we come together, instead of remaining apart. It's time for a critical mass of white American Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners to step up, be supportive, and join the #BlackLivesMatter movement in whatever ways they can.