Checking Our Blind Spots

Posted by Asenath in enlightenment | personal growth - (Comments Off on Checking Our Blind Spots)

Who remembers the moment during the town hall debate between presidential nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton when they each were asked to name one thing they admired about the other? The question was uniquely non-political, and at the time, I thought it was a bit of a throw-away. Trump said he admired Hillary’s resilience, and Hillary said she admired Trump’s children. I doubt either of them had ever spent a moment considering what they liked about each other before the surprising question was asked. And that’s too bad.

During this time of polarization characterized by fear and anger on both sides of the political spectrum, it is difficult to find ways of coming together. It’s a fine line we are all walking, between standing up for our beliefs and respecting the beliefs of those who disagree. Between keeping a watchful eye on acts of fear, hatred and prejudice carried out by our elected representatives and keeping watch over those same tendencies in ourselves and our allies. It’s a fine line, but we can walk it.

My spiritual life started out fairly reluctantly and skeptically about 10 years ago, but the positive results were undeniable. Since that time, it has picked up steam, and now my Buddhist meditation practice is at the center of my social, intellectual, and creative life. At this point, I thank my lucky stars every day to have found a spiritual path and community that I resonate so strongly with.

I bring this up, because my spiritual life has kept me grounded in love, compassion and self-inquiry during this time of national stress just as it has in times of personal stress. I have been reviewing the works of civil rights leaders and have seen that great leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.,  John Lewis, Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh and many others were able to access such courage and social power because they were deeply rooted in love which came out of their spiritual practices.

This is not to say that people who do not adhere to a spiritual practice do not default to love and compassion in their activism. But in my experience, making a deep and sustained commitment to studying the doctrines of love and kindness, learning from great teachers, practicing every day and having a community to practice and discuss with has greatly enhanced my ability to maintain my composure and my moral compass in all kinds of situations.
Tonight, I read a paper titled Possible Implications for Addressing Moral Injury through the Use of Lojong-Based Contemplative Practice. You can read the entire paper HERE, and I recommend it.

Moral Injury was a new term for me. It  applies to the pain and anger experienced when we witness moral norms violated by others or when we violate our own (for instance, soldiers when they harm others despite inner beliefs against harming others).This is a fascinating topic and an interesting and new (to me) way of looking at some of the underlying causes of PTSD, anxiety and depression.

Lojong is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that consists of 59 slogans which are used for training the mind. Even for experienced practicioners of Buddhist inquiry, it is helpful to read a commentary or two about each of the slogans in order to understand their meaning. These practices are widely applicable and very wise. The slogans as well as commentaries are easy to find online.

This article also introduced me to the Shinshu Buddhist practice of Naikan. This practice helps us break out of our conditioned views of others who have caused us harm or who we have witnessed causing harm to someone else. We tend to view those people who have caused great harm entirely negatively. While we may feel justified in doing so, it actually does harm to us, because we, too, sometimes break our own moral code, and when we do, we also tend to view ourselves as entirely negative. It is healthier to be able to practice seeing the good aspects of all people.

I know this is treading on sensitive ground here, so let me be clear. This is not a call to ignore, excuse or tolerate bad behavior. It is simply to notice the truth, that all people engage in acts of kindness as well as acts of violence. Some more than others, but the point is that knowledge is power. We give up our own power when we allow our pain to blind us to the entirety of a person. If we are going to deal effectively in reality we have to let ourselves see the whole picture. Experiencing trauma tends to close our minds as we retract in fear, and this practice can help us open our minds to take in more information.

The practice is to take a person that has caused you or someone else harm and ask yourselves these 3 questions about that person:
  • What have I received from (person x)?
  • What have I given to (person x)?
  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused to (person x)?

A related fourth question, “What troubles and difficulties has (person x) caused me”, is purposely ignored in Naikan. Naikan presupposes that we’re all naturally good at seeing answers to this fourth question, and that too much focus on this question is responsible for much of one’s misery in day-to-day life.

I only discovered this practice tonight, and already I have found it quite liberating and enlightening. It is useful for both the personal and the political, and it is the kind of tool that can help us all right now. I have been making long lists and discovering/remembering the ways in which people who have harmed me have also shown me kindness. Again, I know this is scary territory for many who have been abused or badly injured. Perhaps it is not the right practice for all people at all times. Still, it has been shown to be very effective precisely for people who have experienced horrible violent trauma.

There is a famous teaching in Buddhism about the second arrow. The teaching goes that if you are shot with an arrow, it will be very painful, But if you are then shot by a second arrow that strikes you in the exact same place as the first arrow did, the pain of the second arrow will be many times greater. The analogy here is that the pain caused to us by any wrong-doing is magnified exponentially by our own re-playing of the injury. Our mental obsession with how we were hurt is the second arrow. It can be very difficult to loosen the knot of obsession when we have been injured, even when we know it would be healthier for us to do so.

The practice of Naikan is a way for us to begin to zoom out from our fixed beliefs and loosen that knot, creating more room and space for the truth to emerge and for happiness and calm to prevail. As I said, I have found it to be very liberating. So, if you feel like it, give it a try. And while you are at it, maybe start a running list of what our political foes have done for us. It might become a useful balm that helps us keep our balance in a stormy situation.

In gratitude,

Asenath

Trusting Life

Posted by Asenath in community | personal growth - (Comments Off on Trusting Life)

Hello, dear community.

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about trust. What comes to mind when you hear that word? I think for a lot of us, the first thing that comes up is our relationships and how comfortable we are or are not with trusting other people. But the bigger question is how open are we to trusting in life itself?

I have made a deep and personal study of trust in recent years. This was necessary, because I have struggled with anxiety so much during these years. Underlying my anxiety was a feeling that I needed to constantly be on the lookout for problems and solve them in advance in order to fend off disaster.

This expectation of disaster came as a result of situations that felt overwhelming and intolerable to me, after which, unconsciously, I took upon myself the responsibility of making sure that nothing like that ever happened again.

Even when I knew that my problem-solving mind was not doing me any favors by frantically trying to control things so that good things would happen and bad things would be avoided, I couldn’t stop. My mind had such a habit of stepping in to predict and solve problems, that it was beyond my control to stop it.

Under stress, I think this happens to a lot of us. We may know that we are wasting precious resources and stressing ourselves out by trying to direct the flow of life, but what else are we to do? Our fear of being swallowed by this problem or that is so great, that our mind feels it must jump in to help.

I’ve spent years practicing meditation in order to help soothe and quiet my mind, and as helpful as that has been, I’ve still found it difficult to get into a truly cooperative relationship with my mind.

There is a concept in Buddhism called “wearing out”, and in some ways, that is what has been happening in recent years with my fears. They have begun to just wear themselves out. I have sought out better ways of working with my mind and applied them to the best of my ability. And to the extent to which I have not been successful, I have just waited and allowed my fear to run its course.

Recently, the scales have begun to tip. The evidence that my racing mind is doing more harm than good has mounted and mounted until, something has gently given way. I’ve witnessed the wearing out of the old belief that I can think my way into (or out of) a certain kind of life. I may have known that intellectually a while ago, but it is only now that the knowledge is moving from a theory to a reality, from a probability to a fact.

I’m not saying that we ought not to use our minds. Of course not. Our minds exist, and they carry out incredible functions. But it’s often a case of the tail wagging the dog. For most of my life, my mind has been in the driver’s seat, trying to get life to go a certain way, and the rest of me is just along for the ride.

During a meditation session a couple of weeks ago my mind was resting peacefully, and I was filled with love for this instrument, which works so diligently on my behalf. I noticed how capable and agile it is and how exasperated it becomes from working so much. Rather than admonish it for wasting energy worrying, I acknowledged its awesome power.

I realized that it has been operating under a misguided directive for so long. I have assigned it the job of solving all my problems, and it has done its best and worked so hard to fulfill that directive. I began to perceive what an immense relief my mind would feel, if I removed that burden from it. I saw that, not only would it be able to rest and relax, but it would be able to use its great power for tasks it is fully equipped to handle.

In that initial meditation a couple of weeks ago, I had a vision of what my mind would be capable of if, instead of serving my fear, it was serving a higher purpose.

Since then, when my mind starts going, trying to solve all of my problems, I simply invite it to come lie down and rest. I see it like a cat stretched out napping in the sunlight. I let the light of stillness shine on it and let it soak up that light. Every time I allow my mind to rest like a cat in the silent light of awareness, I am gently, lovingly teaching it it’s new instructions. I am gently re-training it where to go, where to exist, who to serve.

The sense of relief is so powerful. It’s not just a break from stressing out. It’s a redesign of my inner workings that puts my mind in alignment with the rest of me. Under the old system, my mind was tasked with a huge job that it could never fulfill. How stressful is that? In the new system, my mind is reserved for taking on tasks it can excel at.

This is where my fear had to wear itself out. I had to come to the conclusion that so little of what happens or doesn’t happen in this life is within my control. I had to give up all hope that my mind could find a way for me to succeed in business, in relationships, in health, in life. I had to accept that there is very little my mind can do to alter the course of my life.

One key to this shift for me has been opening up to the experience of simply trusting in life’s process. I can see that life has a way of working things out. All of us will face hardships, and when we do, we will get through them however we get through them. And when we die, we will go through that however we go through that.

Sometimes we will get exactly what we want, and that, too, has a kind of pain in it. It immediately sets off this desire to hold on to a good thing, to increase it, to solidify it. That kind of craving is also based in fear, and the feeling of fear is discernible in the excitement of getting what we want. The mind can then spin off with a million ideas of how to increase the good fortune that has come our way. It’s all an effort to avoid pain and suffering.

What I’ve begun to clearly see, is that it is not the mind’s job to help me avoid pain and suffering, to get what I want and stave off what I don’t want. That is a fool’s errand, which wastes my energy and makes true peace and happiness impossible.

I’ve come to see that it is a better use of my energy to trust in life’s process than to try to direct it. To see everything that is given to me, both things I really want and things I really don’t want, as a gift. As what is mine to work with. Any effort to change things actually takes me further away from myself. Having a willingness to work with whatever comes my way, to do my best with what is right in front of me without pushing my own agenda, keeps me grounded in a place where peace and happiness reside and are immediately accessible.

Whatever life brings my way, good and bad, lucky and unlucky, is going to happen. There is no use in fighting against it or trying to prevent or change it. It is better to free up that energy and become supple, allowing whatever occurs to simply be, and giving my mind the rest and recognition it deserves.

Blessings to you and yours.

Asenath

We’ll See!

Posted by Asenath in community | enlightenment | personal growth - (Comments Off on We’ll See!)

A friend recently told me this great Taoist story:

There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.

“Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“We’ll see,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.

“How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“We’ll see,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“We’ll see,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“We’ll see” said the farmer.

There is so much to love in this story. First, it hits upon one of my favorite bits of wisdom, being able to see the good in the bad and the bad in the good. As Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn says, “No Mud, No Lotus”. Does that make sense? Another way of saying it is no compost, no veggies. The waste makes the food makes the waste makes the food. No light without shadow. Opposites are actually inseparable parts of each other. They are actually the same thing. It’s the good old yin and yang.

The best things in our lives grow from the fertile ground left when things fall apart. And the hardest things in our lives come from the best things, too, things such as being alive, loving, learning.

Whenever things are rough, I always look for the blessings. And when things are great I try to practice letting it flow, not trying to hold on too tightly. Good and bad will come and go. Nurturing this kind of equanimity, this calm at the center of the storm is one of the main reasons I meditate.

Another reason I love this Taoist story is that it could just go on and on. You could easily add to it 10, 20 or 100 more events. And the farmer would just say, “We’ll See.”

To me, this really gets to what a long, twisty-turny path life really is. How many times have I despaired, thinking my world was falling apart only to later find myself feeling like the luckiest person alive. And on it goes. We never know what is around the next corner. I find that very comforting. I like to think of all the things that will happen in my life, which I can’t even begin to imagine now. I like not knowing the future. I like knowing that people, places and events beyond my wildest imagination are out there moving toward me and I don’t even know it. Sure, some will be tragic and some will be grand, but to me, it’s all just gorgeous. The fact that we are even here and all this is happening is such a wonder and a miracle. A million billion miracles one after another and all at the same time.

When our perspective is too small, only reacting to one event at a time, the feelings can be overwhelming. But, if we can remember that this is only one event in an infinite landscape of possibilities, we can be a bit more dispassionate, a bit more open-minded, we can zoom out and see the big picture. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about the things that happen for, to and around us in 2017. We are human and we have feelings, beliefs and opinions. But it never hurts to keep an open mind and a light heart. Especially when things don’t seem to be going in our favor, just remember, We’ll See!

How Connected Are We, Really?

Posted by Asenath in community | enlightenment | Holistic Wellbeing | Massage | personal growth | WorkWell Personalities - (Comments Off on How Connected Are We, Really?)

Dear WorkWell Community,

We are all connected, aren’t we? We share a culture, a language, this city of ours, Austin. We all travel along the same roads, visit many of the same restaurants, hike the same trails, groove to the same music.

It’s so tempting to feel isolated, separate and alone, isn’t it? Even when we are surrounded by others, we feel separate. We may be driving in our car alone and feel no connection to the other people sharing the road with us. The truth, however, is that we are very much depending upon those other people, aren’t we? We are depending upon them to be awake, sober, alert. To be willing and able to follow the laws of safe driving. In fact, our very existence, depends entirely upon the people with whom we are sharing the road. Do we take the time to recognize this? To feel grateful to them for caring about the preciousness of life and their fellow humans? Do we take the time to wish them a safe ride, a good day at work, a good song on the radio?

We may be in our home and feel no connection to the many people in our neighborhood and city. And yet, of course, if they were not there, we could not be there either. Without them, our neighborhood would be a ghost town. We all depend on one another being there. That’s how we have roads and grocery stores and gardens and schools. We are very much connected with our neighbors. We could literally not exist in the way that we do, if it were not for them.

We may even be interacting with people at work, church or at a party, but underlying our interactions is a sense that there is a “me” interacting with a “you”, and that we are inherently separate entities.

Do we ever stop to wonder whether or not that is actually true? This sense of being a separate self is taught to us from birth and is constantly being reinforced by the ways we talk and think about the world. Have you ever tried to go a day without using the word “I”?  It would be very difficult to do, because this idea of a separate self is so deeply ingrained in our language and our way of thinking and being in the world.

But we can come up with any number of examples that will show us that what we consider to be “me” could not exist without other people and places. It can’t exist without context. It certainly can’t exist without sunshine, rain, and an earth to live upon. It only exists within the framework of all of creation and also within the framework of all of humanity. It is impossible to find an example anywhere in which the self exists completely alone with no context.

I think this is the meaning of the koan “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Having heard that all my life, I realized just the other day why that question is significant. It points us to the truth that, just as one hand cannot clap itself, one life cannot live itself. It’s absurd. We are not separate. It’s impossible to be so.

Perhaps you are thinking, “yeah, so what?” It is almost a cliche to say “we are all connected”. Is it just a saying without meaning or does it mean something? Do we notice this and think, “sure, that’s true” while we go on living as a separate self? Will it make a difference in our lives if we stop to consider that maybe this whole idea of being a separate self isn’t true?

As some of you may know, I follow Buddhist teachings and meditate with a group of people who do the same. This insight, the one I am sharing about there not being such a thing as a separate self, is the basic realization that the Buddha had. It’s not that hard to see, but it takes some practice and concentration to apply. But we don’t need to be Buddhists to see this. It actually has nothing to do with that. It’s just an insight into how we view the world, which might be flawed, and this basic flaw might be the cause of a lot of suffering. It’s just something to ponder.

I can’t say whether or not it will make a difference for you to question the existence of a separate self. But I know that for me, the practice of looking into that, over and over again has made me much larger, more loving, more open and more at peace. And, of course, for many others, as well, this simple deep question has unlocked something very profound.

So, I certainly invite you to try it. I need frequent reminders, which is why I meditate and listen to talks from spiritual teachers and converse with friends who keep pointing these things out to me. And I’m part of that, too. Continuing to remind myself and others to look again and see whether or not we still believe we are separate. Can we let go of that belief again? If so, what happens?

WorkWell Austin is 6 years old now. For the duration of these 6 years, I have been going along this path, trying to be a good business owner. Trying to understand my role or roles here. Of course, on the surface, I have many roles which encompass everything from choosing the building to sweeping the floor, maintaining equipment, hiring and training staff, managing schedules, booking appointments, marketing, accounting, etc.

Those have been a playground and a classroom for me to learn many new skills, to make mistakes, some very painful ones, and to celebrate successes and relationships. But deeper than that, there is a reason that this exists. Certainly, it is to provide great massages to our clients. But more than that it is to connect amazing people with one another to help facilitate our healing and personal growth. I have always felt that connection and that sense of community between us all. Even though most of you who come to WorkWell have never met each other, the therapists here and, especially myself, see this very connected community of people on a path of personal healing, health, love and growth.

Just recently I began a series on our Facebook page called Humans of WorkWell, modeled after the beloved Humans of New York blog. I have so greatly enjoyed being able to do these interviews and photoshoots. I just ordered my first ever real camera, so I can begin honing my skills as a photographer. The interview process is also evolving, and it is so satisfying and beautiful to me. Getting to know our clients even more deeply and share their strength and beauty with our community has enhanced that sense of connectedness that I felt was there all along.

Now, I am beginning to blog for us, writing to you all once or twice a month, and that, too, feels like a deepening of the connection we all share. I am so grateful for it. My dear friend, Alexis, will also be doing some blogging for WorkWell, and her writings will be well-researched massage and health related posts. My posts are going to be more along the lines of this one. Speaking to you from my heart about the things that matter most to me: our personal, intellectual, cultural and spiritual growth. I look forward to connecting more and more deeply with my beloved community. It is such an honor simply share in this existence with you. To realize how precious it is, how much we really do need and support one another. Thank you for being here, for bringing your unique perspective and light. Thank you to all of us for showing up.