Like Words Together Reflections from the deep end of Practice.


Mudita Bhāvanā

Mudita, one of the four Brahmavihāras (divine abidings), one of the mind-states of an enlightened being. Mudita is the state of rejoicing in the happiness of others, the state of sympathetic joy. It can also been see as the recognition of an inner joy we always have access to which helps us to appreciate our lives.

Bhāvanā is Sanskrit for 'development', 'producing', or 'cultivation'.

Mudita Bhāvanā is the cultivation of the mind-states of joy and appreciation or gratitude.

I recently invited a group of people, not necessarily Buddhist practitioners or mediators, to join me in looking at a mindfulness exercise based on one Chozen Roshi sent out last year.

Part of her mindfulness task included the following: "We want to engage in Mudita practice as an investigation of what we can or are appreciating in this moment rather than as a way of suppressing or ignoring negative mind states. We want to broaden our awareness to consciously include and embrace what we appreciate and notice what effect that has. Do negative mind states drop away by themselves when we focus on what we appreciate? Does our habit or conditioning to notice and become obsessed with the negative change with Mudita practice?"

We would spend a week spent dedicated to the practice of Mudita Bhāvanā. At the end of the week each participant would write a little bit about their experience and share it with another participant in a letter. In the end, nine people participated. Right away people commented on how just anticipating the dates to start the experiment brought mindfulness to their daily life. I was thrilled to receive this feedback and have made it part of my own practice. It has been an opportunity for me to gratefully receive positive feedback and fully, truly enjoy the excitement of others.

I've been making a practice around appreciation for all of Ango. I continue to note something I appreciated about my day each night before bed. On the nights I forgot, I merely note it and write something in the morning. I stay mindful of my vow to be gentle with myself and do not let my Inner Critic beat me up too much about not doing this task exactly when I "should have".

This past week of really staying mindful to gratitude and sympathetic joy has been far more challenging than I expected. On the 5th I was given the opportunity to take a severance package at my job of 7.5 years. I wasn't actually on the list to be laid off, however, if I volunteered it would mean upper management wouldn't look at having to lay off someone with only a few years left to retirement with pension intact.

The truth is, I am grateful for my job. I appreciate the illusion of security and comfort it provides me. Some of the people I work with, particularly my boss, have become real friends over the years I've known them. However, most of the time my job has been unsatisfying, frustrating, and stagnant. Upper management has denied me a promotion for a few years now. Bearing all that in mind I said I'd volunteer to be laid off. My boss and I discussed early May as a potential target for me to leave and I was very appreciative of this time to wrap up loose ends.

Tuesday morning I was told that my volunteer offer had been accepted. However, despite my careful planning, the separation date would need to be the end of this month. I would have less than two weeks to wrap up the most demanding of the loose ends. I also am forbidden from sharing the news with my teammates until Monday; they will get 5 days warning.

I've spent the past two days in "triage mode" trying to determine what is critical to be changed starting Monday, once the people who will assume my responsibilities are informed. This morning I had to lie during a team call as to why I couldn't pick up a new project. It felt awful.

In that moment, on the verge of tears and feeling nauseated, what could I feel grateful for? Could I turn toward the positive things about that moment instead of feeling crushed by the negative mind-states rapidly manifesting? Having been focused on this practice I found that a long list came to mind very quickly.

  • I felt grateful that I was working at home and not having to be face-to-face with people.
  • I was appreciative of the sun breaking up the clouds and beginning to brighten my home office.
  • At hearing nervous discussion about job cuts happening in my department I felt grateful knowing that having volunteered to go it meant some of those nervous people would keep their jobs for the time being.
  • I deeply appreciated the encouraging words from CK via instant message.
  • I was/am profoundly grateful to have a partner who is glad I'm being laid off and reassures me that she's got my back.
  • I'm so grateful that she doesn't mind reassuring me a lot these past few days.
  • I was appreciative of the cup of very good tea I was drinking.
  • I was happy to be at home where I could go out to the garden or enjoy the company of the cats.

After directing my thoughts toward all the positives in the present moment I did feel better. The tears subsided as did the tightness in my throat and chest. I was able to focus and come back fully into the present moment, including the challenging team meeting.

In the past week I have found that each time I mindfully direct my thoughts towards sympathetic joy and gratitude there is a noticeable sensation of feeling lighter. Whereas my anxiety manifests itself in a tight, crushing sensation, Mudita feels as though weight has been removed. I feel anxiety as a terrible weight, a tearing at my heart center, but when I mindfully cultivate joy and gratitude, I feel my heart pulse with life and open to the present moment.

I have found it interesting to compare the practice I do with Metta, Loving-Kindness (another of the Brahmavihāras), and Mudita. When I practice Metta for myself I feel comforted, protected. I don't feel an openness in my heart until I turn my Metta practice toward others. It is almost as if my self-directed Metta is more about nurturing my hurt than about becoming more open. Mudita is entirely different in that I feel that opening in my heart when I practice for myself.

I've really found it useful to first do Metta practice for myself, comforting the hurt my heart/mind feels, and then cultivating Mudita from that safe, nurtured space. Using the two practices together this way has felt very powerful. Although it isn't easy yet, I have found that the more I practice Metta and/or Mudita, the faster my mind shifts. Even if this shift is small and I am not entirely lifted out of the negative mind-state I've found myself in, these practices still create space, light, and ease.


Just the Sound of Rain

Today was kind of rough. The full big reality of some recent decisions started to hit and it felt very uncomfortable. Adding to the discomfort is the uncertainty and stretch of being involved in negotiating a proposal for a venue - there's large numbers involved and I've never done this kind of thing before. A whole lot feels very uncertain right now.

I don't really like uncertainty or change. I grew up with a too generous helping of both of those, combined with entirely disordered, dysfunctional and sometimes abusive behavior. All is a recipe for fearing change. I feel waves of big craziness from Lovey, my Inner Critic:

"Are you absolutely mad?! How could you be volunteering to give up this security?!"

With all that energy I went to sit zazen with my sangha tonight, fully expecting two periods of monkey mind: Lovey berating me, some wholly inappropriate music, a little crying -- the usual. Well, the usual for my zazen for the past several months if not most of the past year. My zazen has become distinctly restless and is just one more task I must accomplish each day in order to be a good person. My teacher recently recommend that I sit less each day to try get those periods to regain some sense of restfulness.

Tonight I was prepared. I had the mala CK got for me, my wrap, and I even had a new handkerchief someone sent me, embroidered with blue & white columbines. I was ready for it. Instead during the first sit, with a physical sensation, a "popping" of energy in my head, suddenly everything stopped. Maybe still a little bit of voice, the observer noticing the quiet and commenting at this reminder of zazen as rest.

Still, it was the most quiet my mind has been since sesshin in August when I was overcome with this hazy, exhaustion that seemed to keep me in a strange fog most of the week. Only this time I wasn't hazy or exhausted, I was just there. Aware of the sensation of breath moving in my tight ribs and of the sound of the late winter rain pounding into the roof of the zendo.

The second sit wasn't as restful and I didn't expect it to be. Neither was it awful. It was just normal. Thoughts arising and returning to the breath. Through it all was the thrumming of the rain, nearly until the bell rain. The sound filling my ears, drawing me back out of my head and into my body and reminding me of the sensation of rest.

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Self-Cleaning Pottery

Several weeks ago I sent my teacher Hogen an artist trading card I'd made. It has the quote from Rumi on the back, that bit that has had me thinking and meditating around it since CK gave me the book for my birthday!


Step off
proudly into sunlight,
not looking back.

Take sips of this pure wine being poured.
Don't mind that you've been given a dirty cup.

It has been useful to consider myself as the cup and the various abusive moments in my life as the stains of the cup. The imagery has become a way to see that in being caught up in the stains I'm entirely not present to the pure wine being poured, not able to appreciate my life. When I am stuck in the pain, and the habitual reactions around it, it is like drinking the wine while complaining about the cup.

When I sent the trading card to Hogen I enclosed it inside of a beautiful card with koi painted on it. Faced with the blank interior of the inside of this card my mind rushed to put something, anything that might sound like I'm a decent student. In that speedy awkwardness I wrote down something about practice being a way of cleaning the stains of the cup.

Only it isn't. I'm totally wrong in thinking that. Believing that if I just practice hard enough I can somehow clean the stains. I can't make history go away, it is impossible. It is falling into the trap of hoping that Zen or Yoga are somehow a kind of self-improvement program that will make the past not matter.

I'm missing the point. The point is to not care about the stains, not to find some way to clean the up. This wondrous, present moment is the pure wine of life. The cup holds the wine, why in hell do I care if it has stains?

On Sunday I was hanging out after the retreat, a busy time when Great Vow gets even quieter as residents head into their day off or to attend events in Portland. I happened to catch Hogen as he prepared to head into town and mentioned what I'd realized about practice. That what I'd first written him was wrong because I still cared about the stains if I was hoping practice would clean them. I told him that the whole point is for me to not care about the stains anymore.

He smiled at me, nodded and commented that the real point is that when I no longer care about the stains then the cup will clean itself.

I had to laugh to myself as he walked off, considering the aspiration to become self-cleaning pottery.

All that and a haiku for late winter!

Late winter sunshine
Inspires flowers to burst forth.
"Spring comes!" they assert.


When my Critic is Quiet

This weekend's retreat was unsurprisingly powerful and emotional. I felt very strongly supported by my Portland friends, something CK helped to remind me of by prompting some friends to send me very positive text messages on my way out to Great Vow, and by the Sangha there. Looking back at the weekend I can see the many ways the residents at Great Vow were supporting and helping me through a retreat I came to very reluctantly.

One thing I figured out that was good to learn are the times when my Critic is silent. That critical voice or sensation in my body is so often present that it feels like I am never with out it. However, when a Dharma sister from our Portland program and I agreed to talk about when it isn't there, since the conversation was shorter, she helped me to see two times when I am utterly free from this feeling.

Unsurprisingly cooking was one of those times. When I am engaged in preparing food there is no critical voice. I am merely present to the activity of my hands, the timing of the cooking, and the food I am transforming. When I serve a new dish to someone the voice comes back, but most of the time I'm pretty confident that what I've prepared will be delicious.

I also realized that when I teach yoga there is no Critic. Even if I am anxious or terribly upset right up until the very moment I begin a class, once I start to teach the voice goes away and I am present and alert. When I transmit the Lineage of Yoga there is no space for the Inner Critic. None.

It was good to connect with these two times when I am clear and free of my Inner Critic. Now I'm wondering when else it is gone!


Transforming the Inner Critic

In a few minutes I'm headed out to Great Vow for the weekend for the Transforming the Inner Critic workshop. People have assumed I've already done this workshop, but the truth is I've avoided it like a plague. I'm really very anxious.

It isn't helped that I made a rather big decision today about my life. It is a positive decision and for the best, but like any big decision it brings up a lot of worry. It really fires up the Inner Critic.

So off to engage my Inner Critic in the safe environs of Great Vow Zen Monastery. I dread crying. I already know I will be. I hate crying in front of people and I feel like I do it all the time at Great Vow if there is any kind of overnight stay involved. My therapist said she thinks I should try and come back having attained some compromise with my Inner Critic where I'm allowed to feel OK when crying.

Have my pictures packed and silly Buddha ATC someone sent me (bling-tastic, hilarious). I have snacks and CK made cookies last night. I even packed up some supplies for making some art myself. Ready as I'll ever be for this retreat.