Time for Practice [Audio]
In this talk, we explore the foundations of a solid practice, specific techniques and resource tools to relieve the stress and anxiety of recent events.
This is part two on the topic of resilience. The title of this talk is “Time for Practice”. It’s always time to practice. It feels like with everything that’s gone on in the past year that now, more than ever, is a time to practice.
Why do we practice? To be centered, for peace, to remember, so we don’t go crazy, for lovingkindness, for freedom, to feel a part of, for insights, to build a relationship with ourselves and others, to end suffering, to feel better. I had a teacher who said, “We practice so we decide what we want to think about- on a relative level. On an ultimate level, to find out what we are.”
What is our practice? Pausing, watching, being mindful, breathing, counting to ten or twenty before responding, coming back, being purposefully happy and kind without any reason, paying attention without judgement, having no expectations, being here now, letting go, relaxing intense situations, being okay with not knowing, feeling the flow, loving for the sake of loving, sensing, being. A lot of times when we think of practice, when I ask people how their meditation is going, they say, “Really bad! I haven’t been meditating that much.” Which refers to the formal practice–being on the cushion. But listen to what we’re saying: letting go, being patient during tense situations, loving. How much does that happen on the cushion? How much of it is informal? How much of it can be done in any situation throughout our life? For me, practice is also what we touch during our formal or deeper practice, like going on retreat; when we practice and come into connection with something. This could be a short time, many times. It could be that informal “feeling the flow”; paying attention on purpose to the present moment non-judgmentally. What are we when we’re not following the thoughts and emotions? Really focusing on tasting each moment.
I was talking to a long time spiritual friend of mine, one of my deepest spiritual connections. He’s an African-American man from Louisiana. When I was a pipe fitter in South San Francisco, they were remodeling a Whole Foods. We were building it from the ground up. He and I were demoing a piping system beneath the flooring. We were talking about something and I started to move towards the topic of spirituality. We were both tiptoeing around the topic and finally he said to me, “Have you ever heard of Kundalini?” I said, “Yeah!” That was it. We were best friends from then on. I was talking to him yesterday. He is somebody who, in my opinion, carries and embodies peacefulness. He is a phenomenal man. Things come to him before they happen. He was sharing with me that he doesn’t sit much anymore. He never really did. Before he fell asleep he would get into a very meditative state and that’s where the depth came from. He is someone who when I look at him, when I’m around him and I talk to him, I know he’s already there. It’s already integrated into each moment.
For myself and for others, I’ve seen us tippy-toe in the conceptual and comparing mind for way too long–into the readings, the books, spiritual materialism, dogma–when none of that really matters! This is not about buddhism, teaching, or the technique you’re doing, because none of it exists in truth. When we say it’s time for practice, it’s time to already know beyond belief. When we’re talking about who’s right, who’s wrong, what technique is the best–that’s called belief. What do you believe in? It doesn’t matter what you believe in. What do you know? People talk about paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally. That’s not mindfulness. Those are the instructions for mindfulness. Mindfulness is your experience of that instruction. Until we taste it we’re just bouncing around, lost. We need to actually taste it to know where to go. It’s a place of refuge within each and every one of us. That’s why we say we practice to find that place of refuge: to know that in the chaos of the world–whether a shooting or political chaos–that there is a place of refuge where the ultimate truth is that everything is okay as it is, with me, in this moment. Whether we’re working, relaxing, arguing, in pain, in pleasure, that there is a place where we can go and feel safe and loved. That place has no words, no dogma, no religion, no instruction. There’s nothing that can describe it. You can’t tell anyone about it effectively. We need to come home to that as often as we can so we can remember what it feels like. The process is the practice.
The best meditation is non-meditation. Drop the meditation. Drop the technique. Drop the meditator. Drop the expectation and rest in trust.
I work at a depression and anxiety clinic. This week has been an interesting week where the events that have been happening have affected many of us. Today we can do a practice that the Tibetan Buddhists have been doing for thousands of years called “diaphragmatic breathing” in yoga. It’s wonderful for the parasympathetic system. At an esoteric level, it brings us back into center by collecting our chi, prana, life force. When we have anxiety, we leave the roots of the tree and sway with the wind.
Find a meditative posture. When you inhale, expand the abdomen away from the spine. Then have a slight pause for the breath to oxygenate the blood, because if we do it too quickly without pausing we may start to feel light headed. On the exhalation allow the abdomen to collapse back down towards the spine. Slight pause. Repeat this cycle.
The mind itself can be placed on the abdomen or on your hand. This is a body meditation. Around the area of the naval experience the expansion and contraction of your abdomen. We are used to breathing with our chest–we’re shallow chest breathers–so this may feel uncomfortable to some. This is how we would breath as babies. Also, because we live in Southern California, we’re not used to pushing out our belly. We’re used to holding it in. Just let it release. When the mind wanders, bring it back with kindness to the expansion and contraction of the abdomen. This is a great practice to use counting. One inhalation and one exhalation counts as one circulation of breath. Doing this for five circulations, concentrate on each cycle, one breath at a time. This is a practice we can do during times of high stress. If you do it enough, you’ll catch yourself breathing like this.
When we are feeling anxiety or agitation, we are stuck in fight, flight, or freeze. It’s very easy for the primitive part of our brain to tell us that we’re in trouble even when we’re not. It’s part of our survival make-up. When we get an email from the boss, same thing happens: sabertooth tiger reaction. Science has figured out that there is a way to go the other way. Have you ever noticed yourself stressed out and anxious but nothing really is going on? Maybe you’re thinking of something in the past or future, but right now you’re actually safe? We need to find a way to let the wholeness of our being and brain know that we are ok.
One way to go back the other way is compassion. We get oxytocin from compassion. It’s a chemical in our brain that lets us know we are okay even when we are suffering. If a child is sick, mom brings the child soup. The child knows she’s suffering but also knows that she’s taken care of.
Mindful Self-compassion Break has four parts. The first part is acknowledgement that this is a moment of suffering. If we look at it the same way we would look at someone else suffering, would you walk right by? No, you would meet their suffering. Often times though we don’t meet our own suffering. We go into distraction. We hide it. We’re not there for it. The first part is just to acknowledge that this is a moment of suffering.
The second piece is to know that you’re not alone. When we suffer, we contract, which is the opposite of what we should do. We move inward for many different reasons–we don’t want to be a burden, we don’t want to do anything, we feel depressed. But suffering is part of the human experience. Everybody suffers. There’s a connection in suffering because nobody is immune to it. It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you are in the world, how much money you make, everybody suffers. And there are people suffering just like you in this very moment. You are not alone.
The third step is to self-soothe. Hugging releases oxytocin. We can self hug by placing our hands on our heart and the same chemical releases. To the best of our abilities we want to evoke that same nourishing, nurturing quality that you’d have if you were with another. Bring the warmth into it. You can do ninja self compassion if you’re in a public place, such as rubbing your hand on your leg. Then talk to yourself. You can say: “This too shall pass. May I be patient. May I be kind.” The best time to practice is to practice when we’re okay. That way it’s readily accessible when we really need it.
How can one establish a longstanding gratitude practice? Pick three new things everyday. Be specific with details. It is very important that we are keenly aware of how the brain works. At 0, we can practice deeper meditation. If we’re on the negative side of the number line, let’s say we’re in depression, really feeling down, we can practice something different like a gratitude practice to help us get back to baseline. Sometimes we need medication to help us get back to baseline and support it with our practice. The neural pathways that we create through our practice everyday are very important. If you walk down the neural pathway of sadness everyday, the mind is trained to be sad. When we go to sleep, our brain checks in on itself and looks at the pathways that were used each day. It takes effort. Whatever was used is strengthened. It’s smart, survival-wise but he more stressed we get, the easier it is to get stressed. Gratitude practice is taking control and saying, “Hey, brain, don’t forget that everyday there are awesome things to be grateful for, even though on the surface it might’ve appeared to be a bad day.” Keep those paths open.
Working at the clinic, we can take a picture of a depressed brain. In a depressed brain the imaging we see through diagnostics is blue. When the brain is stimulated out of depression, we can see a much more active brain that lights up with the release of neurotransmitters. In meditation, we are accessing neural pathways of compassion, loving kindness, joyfulness, and happiness. It takes effort to keep walking down those paths, until the brain wakes up one day and knows that everything is okay, like an enlightened mind would be. Matthieu Ricard wrote the book “Happiness” and shared the studies on Urgyen Rinpoche. In the book it discusses when they bring in signals to his brain, they only go to happiness or compassion. Babies can be screaming for an hour and the input goes to compassion. They’ve established a superhighway to love and compassion. They would light of firearms and 99.9% of us contract. They used slo-mo to capture reactions of these enlightened beings. When the firearm goes off, not only do they not contract, they actually expand into it. When it goes off, they lean in in curiosity. This is so deep that it goes beyond primal instincts of survival. When a being knows that it can ultimately not be harmed, that it’s not its body, this is the part of safety we can feel beyond all harm. The body will contract but the enlightened mind will not be harmed. They asked Suzuki Roshi, “How much ego is healthy?” We live in a relative world, we need ego. He said, “Just enough not to walk in front of a bus.” Just enough for that bodily self preservation. We want to feel the safety of the ultimate truth.
There’s time for practice and time for play. Play is not emphasized in our culture and sometimes there’s shaming of play. Animals play. Nature plays. Enlightened beings play! Smile! At the clinic I work at the physician prescribes smiling–ten minutes, twice a day. It’s a prescription. Activating those muscles release happy hormones. Practice is dose dependent. We have to keep doing it over and over again, just like a taking a vitamin. We can do it many ways though, sit, practice gratitude, diaphragmatic breathing, smile, play, dancing, exercise. When we have a healthy maintenance program for ourselves, we can be more resilient and will not be paralyzed by suffering.
If we want to do good things, we cannot be under the covers. We can be empathic but not so sensitive that we cannot take action. We need people who are resilient. Meditators are the people who go in war and grab people because they see they’re beyond just this body. This is what we’re looking to touch. We need to take care of our brains and recognize that it can go into trauma quite easily. We need to move into self compassion training, diaphragmatic breath, to let this being know, “dear one, you’re okay. It’s going to be okay. There’s nothing to fear.” Allow this love to arise from within and subdue the brain. Go to the rational part of the brain. Tell yourself it’s okay. Then we can sit in deep practice and be with ourselves, which can be challenging.