Archive for January, 2012

Storm Shelter – Part 2

Storm Shelter – Part 2

by Susan Downing

In my last post, “Storm Shelter,” I wrote about how stepping up your practice – whether that’s Reiki or yoga or meditation or another healing or contemplative practice – can help you weather life’s turmoil.  But I also noted that sitting tight as emotional tornados (whether your own or others’) swirl around you can sometimes be difficult, or unpleasant, since doing so usually involves exercising patience in the presence of psychological, emotional or physical discomfort and distress (or all three!)  So, this week, I’ll talk about how learning to go through this process benefits us, in both the short and long runs.

Let’s start by considering the premise that we all want to be able to meet whatever comes our way in life with at least a small degree of calm.  I think it’s probably accurate to say that from time to time we all find ourselves in challenging situations – times when anger or despair or desire or jealousy arise in us.  Sometimes we may even feel these emotions are threatening to overwhelm us, and we wish we could find a way to minimize their effects on us. As I detailed in my previous post, we can learn to recognize an approaching storm and use our practice elements more intensively to ride it out.

As I also mentioned last time, this process is not necessarily easy: although using your practice in this way is less painful than being helplessly tossed about by anger or any of those other powerful emotions, it is still no cake walk.  That’s because once you get yourself into the storm shelter of intensified practice, what you’re mainly doing there is sitting as patiently as you can – while meditating, doing Reiki, etc. – until the skies clear.  You’re being present with whatever distressing emotions or physical sensations you’re experiencing, without running from them or railing against them or reacting to them in some impulsive way, or distracting yourself from them.

I think that one reason this can be so difficult to do is that we simply aren’t used to responding to discomfort or distress by what seems like doing nothing.  Representatives of mainstream medicine and psychology tend to encourage us to respond to discomfort immediately by doing all we can to alleviate it, whether we’re advised to take a pill or let our anger out so that it doesn’t fester inside us.   This gives us the impression that any experience of discomfort is a bad thing and also that it won’t go away unless we actively do something to dispel it.  But as I mentioned last time, these types of storms follow a pretty predictable arc and are generally self-resolving – they’ll wear themselves out and dissipate on their own if we give them the chance.  That means that our only job is to take cover – by taking refuge in our practice – and allow the whole cycle to play itself out instead of trying to stop it or outrun it.

The tornado analogy I used last time is applicable here.  If an actual storm comes up outside, you don’t stand there shaking your first or yelling at it; you do your best to make your way to a place of safety.  And you stay there, managing your worries or fear as best you can until the winds die down, even though you might hear branches or debris flying around outside.  If you find yourself in the midst of a bad storm, you just find something as stable as possible to hold onto and bear up until the danger is past.  And that something stable to hold onto is your Reiki – or meditation, or yoga, or breathing, or prayer – practice.

Now, if you able to approach things this way and tolerate the discomfort of this process, you will see the storm wear itself and lose steam all on its own, without any active participation from you. And you will be left feeling relieved and calm or, and this is usually the case, extremely happy.   The first time you experience this, you’ll be amazed that you managed to get to a state of such happiness by not doing anything except sitting tight and engaging in your practice.

At first this outcome seems so counterintuitive as to be impossible.  But once you see for yourself that turning to your practice as soon as you sense the first signs of a storm will bring relief and joy, you’ll feel encouraged by your newfound ability to weather storms, instead of being overwhelmed by the distress and pain that can arise with them.  Once you see that tolerating a state of discomfort can bring a positive outcome, doing so becomes less of a challenge, And each time you’re able to use your practice in this way, the easier it becomes to be patient with that discomfort, more patient as you go through the cycle.  In other words, you become more confident, because you know that if you persevere in this approach, you will feel things shift to a place of calm and relief.

So, don’t be afraid of allowing yourself to experience some discomfort in situations like this.  By taking refuge in your practice and letting it help you stay calm, you’re developing skills that will enable you to move through life’s challenging situations with less and less disturbance.  You’re establishing the habit of remaining calm in the face of the most challenging situations in your life.

So, keep practicing, and although the tornado warnings will continue to sound in your life, you’ll be able to use them as a way to strengthen your practice, reduce your suffering, and invite more and more happiness into your life.

(This week’s post is adapted from a chapter from my forthcoming book, The Heart of Reiki.)


Why Study the Works of Je Tsongkhapa

Why Study the Works of Je Tsongkhapa

by Jeffrey Brooks

If we carve out a half hour of peace in the midst of a busy day it can be very healthy and good. But if we are only spending the half hour trying to feel better then the effect of the time will dissipate quickly, will leave us longing for more peace and dissatisfied with the rest of what we do.

If we have a greater purpose, a purpose to which we apply our experience of peace in that half hour a day, a purpose which encompasses not only that practice period but our whole day and our whole life, then the effects of practice, instead of dissipating, will accumulate. Then we can have the life we want and put an end to suffering.

Staying sequestered in a monastic retreat setting, high in the mountains, surrounded by nothing but sky, light, rocks and trees, if you are prepared and can practice well, you can sustain a feeling of exaltation and profound peace.

You may sense that this is a feeling. You may see that although this is a good feeling, this is a feeling that can pass, because it is produced by conditions and which, when those conditions change, will dissipate. You may remember that down the mountain there are people who have never even imagined such a feeling. Who are trying to make themselves happy in a way which is inadequate, which is producing dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and suffering. You may want to offer these beings something to help them if you can.

You better know what you are doing. Because most of the beings you have all that compassion for have no particular interest in your assistance and are pretty sure they are on the right track already. And anyway, what makes it your business to butt in?

If we take Buddhism seriously and we study it we will learn what to do and what to avoid. We will be advised to avoid killing, stealing, lying, intoxicants and sexual misconduct and we will be advised to take care of other people, and see deeply into the way things exist.

If we study well, both the scriptures and our own heart and mind, we can learn that following this advice leads to happiness and ignoring this advice leads to misery. If you do see deeply, through persistent meditation and study, you can’t help but want to help other beings who do not know about these ideas and methods.

Example: One human may startle awake, open his eyes which are hurt by the light, with a pulsing headache behind them, and see inches away from his face a crumpled, open, half empty Fritos bag that says Good Fun! on it in happy, red letters.

He does not notice it and instead goes in search of the pipe he used last night or this morning or whenever it was, in the hope that there will be a little rock left in it, or at least some residue, just enough to get him going. His mind is feverish and he is in a rage. He finds the pipe. Lights it up. Nothing.

He gets in the car. It is filled with junk. He checks the mirror and backs out. He catches a glimpse of his face. To others he looks sallow and sunken with bad teeth and sores but to himself he just looks tired. He backs out. He rolls down to a subdivision he knows well. He used to know a kid that lived there. He rolls slow, looking in windows, looking at driveways, looking at doors. He knows what to look for. He pulls down a driveway and his car disappears behind a line of trees. He knocks on the door. If someone comes to it he asks for Jason. If no one comes he kicks it in or pries it open or walks around to the back and uses the slider. Whatever.

He walks in. He goes right to where he knows that people keep their stuff. Fuck them if they are so stupid to not take care of it, he thinks to himself as he goes through the closets and the drawers. And fuck them if someone is in here and shoots me because it would not feel any worse than I feel right now – a thought he has but not quite consciously.

He walks out with a bag in each hand and gets in his car and drives away with a billion bugs crawling under his skin.

It wasn’t always like this.

It used to be he would scope a neighborhood carefully. Watch the houses and watch which ones were empty when and for how long. He really knew his business.

And he would get high and he would be bulletproof and fearless and it was fuckin perfect and he would go out again.  He was untouchable. He would hit ten or twenty houses in a day or two and then party. Then he started getting sick. Then he got into a personality conflict with someone which was only about the money, not about anything else. Then his friends turned against him.

Then he got caught. It was totally unfair, because the time he got caught was a chance thing. Some people came home when he was inside and then the po pos was just everywhere.

“I didn’t even know they had that many cars. They could have talked to me. I never hurt anybody.”

It’s easy to feel sorry for a self centered predator if you would like to do that. Look how he grew up. Look at the songs he listened to and the games he played. Look at the people he surrounded himself with and look at a world that ignored what they thought, and tolerated the way they behaved, until it was way too late.

It’s easy to feel sorry for the people he preyed upon. Who restrained themselves when tempted, who were kind and generous when they could be, who took care of their children, regretted their shortcomings, and worked hard every day. Or who didn’t, but were scared to death anyway when they came home to their door kicked in and their precious things gone: people who are targets not only of addicts and thieves but of sophisticates who make points by mocking them and artists who make a living by shocking them; people whose decency is out of style at a era of social decline.

So what do you do? First train yourself thoroughly in what to do and what to avoid. And then, when you are ready, leave the training hall and see what you can do. Teach the ignorant, heal the sick, protect the innocent. Have a purpose that encompasses your training period and extends through every hour of the day and permeates every word every gesture every act every thought.

Then the exaltation of the mountaintop and the agony of the pit are united within your purpose and all of it will be available for the benefit of beings. But, according to Buddhism, you better know what you are doing.


Storm Shelter

This week’s post is adapted from a chapter from my forthcoming book, The Heart of Reiki, which my publisher has just told me will be available by the end of February.

Storm Shelter

by Susan Downing

I grew up in northern Illinois, in tornado country.  This is the way I remember my childhood summers: the sky would darken with storm clouds and the winds would come up.  We’d check the TV or radio, and if they’d announced a tornado warning, we’d take refuge in the basement and ride out the storm in that safe space, coming back out only when the danger was past and the sky had cleared.

Similarly, in the course of our daily lives, emotional storm clouds or even tornados can come upon us, either with or without advance warning.  Just as my family would ride out atmospheric disturbances by taking cover in the basement, making more intensive use of our given practice – whether that’s Reiki or meditation or another concentration- or healing-based practice – can help us make it through emotional storms.

But if our practice is going to help us in this way, we need to notice an approaching storm early enough that we can seek the safety of our practice before we’re swept away by emotions that can harm both us and others.  Each of us has our own warning signs that can clue us in to an approaching storm, but two of the most common signs that some kind of emotional upheaval is building up are that you suddenly experience either: a strong negative emotion or irritability or antsiness, often seemingly for no reason, a response so unexpectedly strong that you might even ask yourself, hey, what’s that all about?; or growing muscle tension or physical pain that seems to have come out of nowhere and can’t be attributed to any injury or unusual activity.

Although you might not feel highly distressed when you begin to experience these sensations, they often signal that a larger emotional storm could be bearing down on you.  If you hunker down with your practice now, instead of waiting until you’re feeling more upset, your discomfort might fade without escalating. I think this is the biggest challenge – recognizing the warning signs before you feel like a total basket case, when you can still have the presence of mind to take steps to help calm your body and mind.

Assuming you’ve found yourself in this pre-storm state, what can you do to help yourself move through it so that your own discomfort will be at a minimum and you can avoid drawing others into your turmoil?  The basic idea is simple: take refuge in whatever practice skills you’ve developed that help soothe and calm you.  If you know Reiki, now’s the time to step up your practice and do more Reiki for yourself than usual, even lots more than usual, as much as you need to do in order to gain some calm. The same goes for meditation or yoga or any other physical practice you engage in regularly.  You probably have an idea of what helps soothe you, so do that.  Take a long walk, take a hot bath. Call a friend for some moral support. Call your therapist. If physical pain is involved, call your doctor and ask whether you should get checked out.  Ask a friend to send you some Reiki or do some hands on.  If you go to someone for Reiki or massage or other energy healing sessions, now’s the time to make an appointment and go!  Don’t wait!  In other words, take extra good care of yourself.

Now, these are all great ways to respond when you feel a storm brewing inside you, but it’s not always easy to do.  First of all you have to remember that you have your practice – or friends and skilled practitioners – to help you.  I can’t tell you how often my Reiki friends, students and clients have been really upset about something, and when I ask whether they’ve been doing Reiki for themselves, they stop and think and say, “Oh.  No, I haven’t. I didn’t think to do that.”  So, remembering you have tools that can help you is the first step.  Actually using them is the second step.

What you’ll find when you’re able to do this is that these storms have a predictable cycle.  There’s the initial emotional or physical tension that tends to build to the point where you can feel really lousy – you may feel so angry or hurt or despairing or uncomfortable that it’s hard to believe that any of this could possibly help, because everything seems so intense that it’s hard to imagine it will ever end!  But if you trust your practice and give it the chance to help you, what you’ll find is that the feelings that are distressing you naturally rise and fall in a cycle.  Although you might worry that they would never end on their own, you’ll see, as you go through this cycle a couple of times, that the feelings generally start out mild, then get stronger and then eventually fade away.  And the more intensively we practice, the more quickly we go through the whole process.

But we rarely notice the fading part of the cycle, because we generally don’t have the patience to just sit there in the middle of discomfort.  We tend to want to run away from it or do something to get rid of it.  Medicate, self-medicate, distract ourselves with television or some other mind-numbing activity.  But by sitting quietly with your discomfort as you give yourself Reiki – or meditate or do yoga –  you’re not only allowing that discomfort to fade: you’re also beginning to form the habit of tolerating uncomfortable sensations.  (I’ll write next time on why this is a useful skill to develop.)

Now, even if you have a practice to fall back on in the midst of turmoil, it’s not always easy to move through a period of discomfort or unhappiness or anger in this way, especially if you haven’t recognized it early on and it’s gotten more intense.  If this happens, you might be so emotionally or physically uncomfortable that you feel you just have to do something to bring some kind of resolution. But what will help most at this point is hunkering down in your metaphorical storm shelter of Reiki or meditation or contemplation and doing your best to allow the discomfort to be there without trying to resolve or change anything.  Tolerating the discomfort and allowing yourself to ride out the entire cycle of rising and fading negative emotions will actually help you get to the point where you’ll feel your disturbance fade and see relief and happiness replace it.  It will happen on its own if you can just hold tight and stick to your practice.

In my next post I’ll talk about what’s to be gained by allowing yourself to go through this uncomfortable process instead of resisting it.   But for now, I hope these hints will help you begin to recognize approaching storms and think about how to weather them more easily using whatever practice skills you already have in place.

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by Jeffrey Brooks

Cities are filled with obstacles and places we can’t go. Buildings and bridges, people and cars, lights and signs, almost all are restricted and strange, separate from us. For the most part there is nothing we want in them, and nothing they want from us. So these things and people are not meaningful to us. At best they are background or obstacles.

They are not meaningless in and of themselves. They are just meaningless to us until we want something from them or they want something from us. If we recognize this we can see a divergence between the true nature of reality and the way we experience reality.

If you stand at the edge of a field and look down where the land slopes away to the tree line in the moonlight you may be transported by the beauty of what you see. You may think how marvelous it is that such a sight could just appear, without anyone making it.

If you see it in contrast to the built environment of a city its beauty may be overwhelming to you. You may see an eagle soaring against the sunset sky, swooping low toward the ground where you stand and feel stunned at the power and the grace of living creatures that somehow miraculously appear in the world.

Let’s say it comes close enough so that you can hear the wind move across it wings. So beautiful.

This field you walk across has nothing growing in it today. It is autumn and cold. That makes it easy to walk across. You can feel the contours of the land and feel a connection to the earth beneath your feet in a way you never can on a sidewalk or a paved road.

A while ago someone hungry walked here. There was no food for them. The land that looks like a miracle of creation to you looked barren and forbidding to them. Just more empty land to walk across as their strength ebbed away.

The land has no nature of being beautiful or ugly. But the condition of the mind and the life of the observer may see it as glorious or grim, or anything else. By noticing this we can see the divergence of the true nature of the world from the way in which we see it.

We can pass beyond this limitation. We can see the true nature of reality. By learning how to do this, and then doing it, we can be free of suffering. This is because our suffering comes from acting on the basis of a fragmented reality; a reality which is distorted by our habits of mind and does not exist in fact. Like trying to get to our destination using a road map that has some pieces missing and some pieces wrong.

You walk across this field and you get to the tree line and see a squirrel picking up an acorn. If you were very hungry and tired you might feel envy for the little fellow, finding so many tasty things to eat, things which for you are not food at all.

If you were on a nature walk you might see the squirrel as cute and busy, with thick gray fur and an essential ecological niche.

If you were looking for something down there, something no one would believe was there, something carefully hidden, something no one should even know is there, you would not even see the squirrel.

If you were an eagle swooping low you might instantly silently shift your angle of descent, reach out and grab the squirrel from behind with your claws and carry the terrified, desperate, helpless dinner away.

Then you would feel happy that your belly would be full and your offspring could live another day.

Nowadays most modern people relate to the squirrel. They think it is terrible when something like this happens. We might ignore the eagle and want him to be a vegetarian. In olden times it seems people more related to the eagle. Praised his power and emulated it. Native American peoples for example, often imitated the eagle and used his feathers. They rarely dressed as squirrels. Eagle power gave them the hope that they and their children could live another day. Nowadays, modern people, who feel comfortable, fear predation not starvation. So, many people relate to the squirrel.

It was a specific frame of mind that led the Indians to their perception of the world and it is a specific frame of mind that leads modern people to theirs, and neither is complete. Neither corresponds to the true nature of reality. In this sense ignorance of the true nature of reality exists in the hearts and minds of most of us, and it is this fragmentary and distorted understanding which causes us to act in ways which produce results which differ from what we hope.

People will do all sorts of things we think will make us happy but which have unexpected consequences. Animals cannot decide to create good karma or bad. They eat or they don’t.  They are eaten or they are not. They feel desire which is satisfied for a moment or it is not. That is it for an animal.

For people it does not have to be that way. We can learn to see more deeply and have a wider view of the interrelationships of life. We can see that skill and virtue and taking care of people provide a self confidence and spiritual nourishment for us and everyone we meet; this is something that self serving cruelty cannot do.

It is good to know the difference between virtue and non virtue. Even though now, in our decadent society, the difference is obscured. It is good to know what to do and what to avoid and to get the presence of mind to recognize them as the choices appear. It is good to surround yourself with good people, and to fill your heart with good purpose.

Because when you look out on any landscape, or into any face, in the city or in the country, at home or on the road, there will be infinite possibilities. We cannot always choose what conditions we will face. But if we know the difference between right and wrong, between truth and deception, we can decide what to do when we face them.

Jeff Brooks has been teaching Buddhism and martial arts for more than 20 years. His law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a police instructor of firearms, defensive tactics, anti-terrorism and use of force; and in criminal investigations.