Planning ahead in this moment

I remember when I first started learning about Buddhism, I was really puzzled by the idea of ‘staying in the present moment’ because if I am only experiencing what is happening to me right now and trying to remain mindfully present in this very moment… how can I look ahead, point my mind towards beyond-now to make plans for dinner, or for anything that is ‘in the future’? That seems like such a contradiction. A paradox.

I still think about this conundrum a good deal, and it continues to be the basis of one of my meditations… as I chop the carrots and prepare for dinner!

When I quietly sit in Wabi’an, watching my thoughts come and go; when I quietly sip my tea, inhaling it’s steamy fragrance; when I watch the birds in the birdbath, coming and going; when I mindfully chop my carrots… all these things I understand as being “present in the moment.” And these moments are calm and reassuring because I feel comfortable that I’m ‘doing’ it… staying in the moment.

But that’s the easy part!

However, as we get all caught up in day-to-day mundanities of planning the week ahead with our calendars full of appointments for work or leisure, the doctor or other health matters, and visits to and by friends and family; remembering birthdays and buying presents; making shopping lists which involves thinking ahead to meals; making sure we get the bookings we want for future holidays (remember those in pre-covid?!); and even planning well ahead for weddings, births, and so on to retirement and even death.

So how do we stay in the moment and plan at the same time? Isn’t that a contradiction?

As time has gone by, I have become more aware that ‘planning’ is simply an activity of my mind, in just the same way as being aware of those quiet, calming moments are activities of my mind. It is simply one thought, followed by another thought, and being mindful of those thought processes. The key is in the awareness of the transient nature of these thoughts and being mindful of what is happening to your body in those moment-by-moment thoughts that relate to “I am now planning.”

But what happens instead is that too often our thought processes get commandeered and away we go galloping off in all directions at once, to anywhere but this centre that is this present moment. We launch into full overdrive of second-guessing our unknown future and filling our minds with scenarios one after another of WHAT-IFs? Our bodies get caught up in the maelstrom of our imagination until we’re in full fight-flight mode of catastrophising. This wild thought process has nothing to do with the simply one-step-at-a-time thought process of “I am now planning”.

So planning whilst staying in the present moment means to bring your awareness to your thoughts… as you plan. Yes, it involves projection into an unknown future in your imagination: planning dinner involves mentally observing the process involved in that preparation and then moving to the fridge to see if that ingredient is there and making a note on a shopping list to add that ingredient, and so forth. All the time, the practice is bringing your awareness to that single thought and then moving on to the next thought, observing that process of your mind.

Catastrophising is also just a mental state, a thought process that has not been observed and has simply run away in its present moment of unawareness. But that is okay too, there is no need to berate yourself and be harshly judgemental. It is simply what is happening in that moment, and bringing your attention to that process.

And if you do find your catastrophising, then your practice is to bring your attention to what is happening and then stop a moment: take just a moment to simply observe how your body is feeling in this very moment of intense anxiety or worry. Take a deep breath and let out a sigh, take another breath and let out a sigh, bring your awareness into your feet and work your way up through your body to the tips of your fingers, to the top of your head. Take another deep breath and let out a sigh. Accept yourself wholly in that moment and be kind. Hold yourself with compassion.

Bringing awareness to whatever you are engaged in in that moment, without judgement, without trying to ‘change’ anything, that is the practice. ‘Planning’ is a mental process of one thought after another… in this present moment. Practice observing the process of how ‘planning’ thoughts follow one another, just resting in the present. And always remember to breathe 🙂

Year of the Ox

2021 is the Year of the Yin Metal Ox, which suggests a combination of the Feminine with Strength and Resilience. A reflection on this suggests to me that it is a year to focus on our innate, intuitive wisdom that can be harnessed to help us remain strong and to see through any of the difficulties that 2021 may present. The flexibility implied in the Feminine can also help to prevent that Strength from turning into a rigid Metal form: think of Gold, which can be beaten and beaten, but it will just get more brilliantly burnished and spread out into fine and malleable forms without losing any of its beauty.

On my kitchen wall I have a lovely old scroll that I obtained in Japan many years ago: I was immediately taken by its whimsical image, without any understanding of its symbolic meaning. I love the laziness of the image: a peasant quietly and happily playing her flute, sitting comfortably astride an ox, that is glancing up to the clear, bright full moon as it walks through a darkened field, lit up by the moonlight. I always feel instantly relaxed when I look at it.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the image is a part of a series of Zen images called The Ten Oxherding Pictures that relate to the ten stages of Zen practice. You can read more about the meaning of each picture here and here.

The picture that I have is Stage Six: Riding the Ox Home. It refers to having tamed your mind, represented by the ox, to the degree where you are on your way home together, in harmony, in peace, no longer having to struggle to tame the stubborn ox-mind. In practice terms, it is the stage where you’re able to tame your thoughts and sit in meditation in peace, without being carried away by your incessant thoughts.

The feeling is one of peace, of being freed from fears and worries and anxieties and now you can become truly creative, finding expression from a free and open mind, tapping into the wellspring of creativity. It is really inspiring, isn’t it!

Yet what I notice about my scroll, as opposed to others that I’ve seen, is that the ox here has turned its head towards the full moon, which represents enlightenment, or our innate wisdom-heart. Why? Perhaps it is a gentle reminder that when you feel happy and content and playful and creative – and all the good things that come from an engaged spiritual practice – it is easy to get absorbed in those good vibes and actually forget that more practice is still needed to be free from suffering and to be a compassionate agent of change in the world. So it reminds me to always fully enjoy the good vibes, but remember to keep up my daily practice and don’t become too complacent 🙂

Random Acts of Kindness

20116-12-03_hhdlMy beautiful daughter wrote the following story on FaceBook today and I’d like to share it. Have a tissue handy  ❤

Practice Random Acts of Kindness peeps. Here’s a couple of stories from my week –
I popped in to IGA for an early morning milk run earlier this week, and when the friendly cashier asked “What have you got planned for today? Do you work?”, I explained that I wasn’t working that day and my daughter and husband were at home sick, she sympathised about caring for sick kids and went on to mention that her daughter was sick with a rare form of cancer. I was taken back and wasn’t sure what to say (how do you respond to that?!). When I asked her how she was doing, she replied that she had passed away 2 years ago.

“I’m so sorry…how are you coping?” I said. Her response will be forever in my memory. She replied “every memory I have of her is as fresh as if it happened yesterday and I still cry every day. Even talking about her makes me emotional”. She spoke so calmly and ‘matter-of-fact’ even though I could see tears welling in her eyes. All the while, putting my groceries in a bag and processing the payment etc. At this point, the next person in line was waiting rather impatiently. So she said ‘have a nice day” and started to serve the person next in line.

I got into my car and had to process the story she had just randomly shared with me – a stranger. I could not even begin to contemplate how I would cope if something like that happened to my daughter. And I admired her strength for still going to work, and getting through each day. How do people manage to solider on after experiencing the loss of a child?

Later that day, I went back to IGA to find this woman. Fortunately, she was sitting at the nearby cafe, waiting for a friend. I went up to her and gave her a card and some flowers. “These are for you. I went through your check-out earlier today and you shared your story with me and I just wanted to say thank you for reminding me that each day with my little girl is a gift”. She burst into tears and hugged me and thanked me over and over again…and then we said goodbye and went on with our days…

Yesterday, however, I was the lucky recipient of a ‘RAK’.

After my card was declined whilst attempting to buy my lunch (I didn’t realise it was the 1st of December and my card had expired the day before!), a stranger overheard my conversation with the cashier and said “I’ll pay for it!” and handed $10 to the cashier. When I asked her for her address so I could drop the money off to her later that day, she said “no, no, no don’t worry about it, just do something nice for someone else”, and looked at me with a big smile on her face. “I will certainly do that!” I replied, thanked her and went on my way inspired by her kindness and on the lookout for who I could return the favour to.

So this week I have been on both sides of a RAK and it’s been a humbling experience. I truly believe that if there were more RAKs occurring, the world would be a warmer place.

And, in conclusion, ’tis a special time of year as Christmas approaches but it is a difficult time for many people – people who are reminded of loved ones who are no longer there to join in the celebrations OR families who are living below the poverty line. All the more reason for RAKs in the coming weeks. I hope that by sharing my little stories (albeit rather lengthy for a FB post!), you’re inspired to practice Random Acts of Kindness :). Happy holidays everyone!

Opening our hearts to hate and fear

With the election of Trump, I feel a tsunami of hate has been unleashed surging around the world, in which so many acts of racism, misogyny, homophobia and prejudice have been legitimised using Trump as a role model. The fear at the root of this negative, destructive energy is swallowing up not only those who are the targets of this hate, but also the perpetrators as well. Hatred wells up out of fear, out of ignorance, out of a feeling of being overwhelmed and helpless. And yet, even if we meet this hatred with anger, then we too become consumed by its energy. So how are we to deal with these negative energies? Where do we find comfort? How do we protect ourselves?

I have often been asked how I deal with the negative energy of angry or aggressive people I encounter, or how I cleanse the energy of Wabi’an to make it clear and pure, or how do I protect myself from negativity. But spiritual practice for me is not about building armour around myself or my sacred spaces; it is about learning how to open my heart wider and wider so that negativity simply flows through. Openness is not the same as filtering; it is not that your heart becomes a strainer collecting all the crap! The practice is to open your heart until it is like the vastness of the sky.

2016-11-17_sky

In Japanese Buddhism, the word for emptiness is the same as the word for sky, so that when we practice “emptiness” it means to feel like your heart and mind are as vast and open as the sky. In meditation terms, this is “sky mind”: a feeling of complete expansive openness. When your heart is as wide as the sky, that ’emptiness’ is then filled up with feelings of unconditional love and compassion for all beings. And this includes unconditional love for those who are tormented by the hate that leads to harmful actions. This practice of opening your heart is the antidote to fear.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t feel anger or sadness or the need to vent and rail at injustice. I felt so sad after the news that Trump was to be president because I have many dear friends who are suffering a deep and genuine grieving at this turn of events and who fear for themselves and their children. And I also believe that there is no one who is not going to impacted by this – in Australia, as well as America, and in fact all of the world. His presidency is a harbinger of dark times.

It’s natural to feel these strong emotions, and indeed you can use these emotions as an object of meditation: when you feel angry, feel it with your whole body, feel where in your body that anger expresses itself, explore that part of your body with careful attention and mindfulness. You don’t have to berate yourself for having strong reactions to everyday life events, but it is important to use those feelings as a focal point for your attention. Ask yourself, what is happening inside me when I feel this anger? This shift in awareness is enough in itself to also dissipate the intensity of the emotion.

But after the rant, there has to be a conscious working towards collective healing. I have always felt secure and safe, ensconced in my little cocoon of isolation here in a beautiful corner of the planet, surrounded by my birds and trees and Kuan Yin blessings; and yet, I cannot ignore the burning heat of the negative energy of the anger and fear that is now corroding the peace of the people I care about and love. It is up to you and I to make a commitment to keep practicing opening our hearts because the world is suffering and our genuine, unconditional love is the only balm for our own grief and pain and it is the only antidote to hatred.

The events surrounding Trump’s election have deeply rocked me and I can no longer be complacent. I am now definitely out of retirement and I am available for spiritual counselling if you need support or guidance for your own spiritual practice. You can make an arrangement to visit me at Wabi’an or have an appointment via Skype. Let’s work together to heal all sentient beings  ❤