Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bodhi Day!

(Parts of this blog are from a great Huffington Post article on Bodhi Day, along with some of my thoughts on its meaning and purpose)

Bodhi Day is a Buddhist holiday that commemorates the day that the Buddha achieved enlightenment/awakening, translated as “Bodhi” in Sanskrit or Pali. Bodhi Day is celebrated on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month. In 2014, Bodhi day was observed on Monday, Dec. 8. (The Tibetan Buddhist celebrate Saga Dawa in April/May which is a combination of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death.)

The Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama into a noble, privileged household. When he was close to 30 years old, he abandoned his material lifestyle and retreated to the forest seeking answers to the problem of suffering, specifically old age, sickness and death. According to tradition, he initially sought bodhi (enlightenment) through meditation, self-mortification and practicing other austerities.

After several years of intense practice, he realized that bodhi was to be found through a Middle Way, away from the extremes of self-mortification and self-indulgence. The story goes that he meditated in Bodh Gaya, a town in northeastern India, under a peepal tree (a species of Banyan fig), now famously known as the Bodhi tree, and resolved to continue meditating until he achieved enlightenment

It is believed that during 49 days of continuous meditation, he confronted Mara, the archetype of craving, desire, unskillful urges—the physical, spiritual and psychological “demons” we all face. After 49 days, he was able to simply sit and be present with whatever arose, learning that it was possible to no longer respond in unskillful ways. He touched the earth to demonstrate this truth. That is the moment when Gautama became “awakened”, at the age of 35. Since then he was known as the Buddha ('the enlightened one').

Buddhists around the world consider Bodh Gaya, India, to be the most sacred of holy places as the birth place of their tradition. Bodhi Day is celebrated in many mainstream Mahayana traditions including Zen and in Pureland Buddhist schools in China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea.

Buddhists commemorate this day by meditating, studying the Dharma, chanting sutras (Buddhist texts) and performing kind acts toward other beings. Some celebrate by a traditional meal of tea, cakes and readings.

In our lives, we each have the ability to become awakened, by tapping into the innate wisdom and compassion that is within every person.  We each can experience a “Bodhi Day” when we awaken to the truth of how things truly are.  It usually doesn’t result in an “overnight” transformation, but is that moment when we find the strength and courage to transform our thoughts, our words and our actions over time.  Happy Bodhi Day!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

PC - 6 - Facing the Fear of Uncertainty

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In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chodron gives us encouragement to go beyond our fearful reactions to the thoughts, emotions, people and situations that scare us.  She even suggests that we can learn to smile at fear.  A large group of people were asked about what they feared most, and when given the choice between physical pain and uncertainty, an overwhelming majority of people were more afraid of uncertainty than they were of physical pain.  It seems that when faced with not knowing, most of us become afraid. Training our minds to sit with uncertainty, with not knowing, is a valuable life skill and part of the Buddhist practice.  By sitting with uncertainty, we can more clearly see what is happening and make better choices in our lives. 

How do our brains react to the unknown?  When presented with a new experience, our brains try to find something to relate it to, something in our past experience or what we’ve been told.  For most of us, we are continually trying to reinforce whatever current view of the world that we already have. If we think that we are unlucky in love or in life, we unconsciously reinforce that story.  Lama Surya Das calls these responses the dysfunctional myths we live by.                                          

How we experience life is based on the stories we make up about it. So what are the stories that you tell yourself about you and your life?  Some of you may have heard or read this following story:
The Window” (Author unknown)
·        During the Vietnam war, Two young men were injured, both seriously, and were put in the same hospital room.
·        One of them had injured his spine and was unable to get out of the bed; his eyes temporarily damaged by shrapnel, his eyes were covered with bandages.
·        The other young man had fluid on his lungs and was required to sit up in his bed for an hour a day to drain the fluid. His bed was next to the room's only window.
·        The men talked for hours on end. They talk about their families, their homes, their jobs, their involvement in the service. And every afternoon when the man in the bed next to the window would sit up to clear the fluid from his lungs, he would pass the time by describing to his roommate all the things he could see outside the window.
·         The man with the bandaged eyes would live for those one-hour periods where his world would be broadened and enlivened by all the activity and color of the outside world. The man told him about the lovely park visible outside. Ducks and swans swam on the water while children played on the playground. It was springtime, so many people were outside, lovers walked arm in arm amid flowers of every color of the rainbow. Grand old trees graced the landscape, and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen in the distance. As the man by the window described all this in exquisite detail, the man on the other side of the room would bask in the stories and imagine the picturesque scene.
·        One warm afternoon while the one man by the window was describing another beautiful day, the man with his eyes covered knew that his bandages would soon come off and he was suddenly irritated that he didn’t have the bed by the window.  Unexpectedly, he thought:  “Why should he have all the pleasure of seeing everything while I never get to see anything? It didn't seem fair. As the thought simmered in his mind, the man felt ashamed at first. But as the days passed and he missed seeing more sights, his envy devolved into resentment and soon made him angry and irritable. He began to brood and found himself unable to sleep. He should be by that window - and those thoughts now haunted his mind.
·        Late one night, as he lying in his bed, the young man by the window began to cough. He was choking on the fluid in his lungs. The other young man listened as the he gasped for help and groped for the button to call the nurse. Listening from across the room, the other man never moved, never pushed his own button which would have brought the nurse running. In less than five minutes, the coughing and choking stopped, along with the sound of breathing. Then there was only deathly silence.
·        The following morning, the day nurse arrived to bring water for their baths. When she found the lifeless body of the man by the window, she was or course saddened and called the hospital attendant to take it away--no words, no fuss. A few days later, with the bandages removed from his eyes, the man asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone.
·        Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look out the window. Finally, he would have the joy of seeing it all himself. He strained to slowly turn to look out the window beside the bed. It faced a blank wall.

This is what we humans often do.  We make up stories to fill in the blanks of the things we don’t really know.  We look at life from the lens of our past experiences and look for reinforcement of what we already think is true.

"We must never forget that it is through our actions, words, and thoughts that we always have a choice about living." -Sogyal Rinpoche

It is a choice, conscious or unconscious, that we allow ourselves to be influenced by our past experiences or by what others tell us to be true. There is evidence of this fact. Researchers have documented that women at the turn of the 20th century commonly reported a specific set of symptoms, including leg paralysis, temporary blindness, and facial tics. These symptoms happened to fit the well-publicized and accepted definition of something called “hysteria”.  Researchers found that patients unconsciously try to produce symptoms that will correspond to the medical diagnostics of the time. A cultural molding of the unconscious happens.

What stories are you creating that are forming your experience of living?  We may not always have a choice about what happens to us, but every one of us is choosing how to live with whatever arises. 

How we choose to perceive a situation is the most powerful tool that we have in life. We can practice having the courage to examine our stories and ask the question, “What is the truth?”  What would it be like to simply to experience each moment as fresh and new?

"A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart." -Johann Von Goethe

Monday, August 25, 2014

PC- 2 - Tonglen: Using our own suffering to reach out and help others who are suffering as well

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We continue our series of talks based on the book by Pema Chodron, Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 teachings on Fearlessness and Compassion.  Today, I’d like to talk about the Buddhist catchphrase of “letting go.”  I’m sure many of you have heard in Buddhism as well as other spiritual practices many times:  We just need to let go of whatever our story is, thoughts or emotions or situations we are struggling with.  Just let go and be at peace.  Ahhhhh, that it was that easy.   For me, when someone knows I’m upset and tells me to just “let it go”, another thought and emotion arises within me—one that includes screaming back at them how they don’t understand what I’m going through—and at times, I've redirected my struggle and anger to them.   And yet in those exact moments of the most intense desire to continue reacting in our habitual ways, those moments are the BEST moments to practice being present, even when we feel the most stuck—not to let go, but, to be aware of being stuck.  Then, as my Buddhist teacher often says, we can learn to practice letting come and go.    We are like spiritual warriors who practice being in the moment with whatever arises, and it may often feel like a battle to stay present when those intense emotions come up.  It is those moments when the greatest transformation can occur.

How can we learn to handle those moments when the old habits grab us by the throat and won’t let go?

Thankfully, Buddhist teachers before us have come up with some helpful tools for exactly that situation.  One particular practice that comes in handy is called Tonglen in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  Tonglen means giving and receiving in Tibetan.  Pema Chodron describes Tonglen in this way:

The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming the fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem 
to be. 

In one of the simplest forms of Tonglen (there are more advanced version as well), we can use our difficult emotions and situations to reach out to others who have experienced the same thing.  The practice has three-four steps:  First, in the absolute sense, we can imagine expanding out to embrace all the love and compassion in the entire universe. Just rest for a moment in this powerful ability we all have: to go beyond our small mind and rest in the absolute love and compassion in its entirety.

The second step is to get more specific about what you’re experiencing:  pain, depression, loneliness.  Or perhaps you are caring for someone who is suffering in some way. Whatever the emotion, we can remind ourselves, that somebody else has felt this same feeling, other people have had these same thoughts, these same struggles.  Whatever the emotion, you can take a moment to silently say “And others have suffered or are suffering in this same way.”  .  Sometimes, when we are having the worst fear, our mind tell us that nobody has EVER had such a problem as this one. It may seem like the worst struggle anyone has ever had.  The power of our imagination sometimes works against us—not only are we fearful, but we’re fearful and completely isolated from all other beings.   In that moment, we can remind ourselves that no matter how alone we feel, it’s not true.  There are others who are sharing or who have shared this pain and struggle.  There are others that can relate and support us in this struggle.  Just rest in that truth.   You are not alone, even in the darkest of emotions.  Others have felt it as well.

The third step is an opportunity to actually help others.  If we are all interconnected, then the work we do to transform our own fears and angers and suffering, thereby can help others with their fears and angers and suffering.  The third step is to breathe in, reminding yourself that others are suffering in the same way, and breathing out together we can find peace. Breathing in the truth of suffering, and breathing out the truth of relief from suffering through connection and compassion.  Sometimes, it may at first seem scary to bring in the suffering of the others when we are in so much pain.  It might seem as “that’s too much! I’ve got enough to deal with myself!” And just breathe into knowing that others have experienced that fear and frustration as well.  Whatever we are experiencing, we are not alone.  Others have or are or will experience that suffering as well.  And by waking up to that simple truth, we can start to feel inklings of compassion rise within us.  Tonglen is a practice to rediscover the compassion that is there within each of us.  Compassion is there, waiting to be tapped into, even if it feels lost or covered up or even non-existent—it’s still there.  In my life, I’ve come to realize that all those times that I screwed up or felt at my worst, those times now seem to now be the ones that prepared me best to have compassion for others, and most importantly for myself.  I can help others by recognizing my own struggles and staying connected to all others who have struggles as well.  Through our struggles and suffering, we can connect to ourselves and all others in a deep profound way. 

As Pema Chodron described, the practice of Tonglen enables us to connect with the deep compassion that has always been and will always be within us.  We just have to breathe into the fear and suffering.  We can transform the pain into peace.

“Letting go” begins by first “letting come”, by acknowledging what’s really going on with us.  Letting go starts by making friends with whatever scary emotion or feeling we’re having, making friends with whatever situation that we’re in, and remembering that others have felt it as well.   Thich Nhat Hanh talks about not letting go of our anger or fear, not pushing it away, but using it to transform that feeling into something useful, helpful.  We can use whatever is happening or has happened in our lives as a tool for transformation.  

Ram Dass is an incredible American spiritual teacher who had a terrible stroke several years ago.  His whole life had been based on his intellect and ability to convey complex ideas.  When he had the stroke, that which was most precious to him was taken away.  Instead of shying away from the reality, he embraced it as a new vehicle for enlightenment.  Christopher Reeve discovered the same power when he lost his ability to be Super Man.  Each of other have faced or will face this kind of suffering.  And each of us can transform whatever happens into great compassion and love for ourselves and others.  And the practice of Tonglen can help. 

Sometimes a fourth step is added:  to then radiate compassion to all beings, for all suffering, for that being is.
“On the spot you can do tonglen for all the people who are just like you, for everyone who wishes to be compassionate but instead is afraid, for everyone who wishes to be brave but instead is a coward. Rather than beating yourself up, use your own stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world. Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.”

                                                -Pema Chodron, “Tonglen”  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Comfortable with Uncertainty – 1 – Awakening Bodhicitta

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Today we start a series of talks about our new book, Comfortable with Uncertainty:  108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion, by Pema Chodron. This is a pithy book with some very specific practices that are designed to open our heart and shift our perspective.  We’ll start with laying the groundwork of the some of the words that will be used and the practices that we will be working on:

The main practice, which is training in bodhicitta (awakened/open heart/mind).

Bodhicitta is a Sanskrit word, the language of the original teachings that were written down, like Latin. Bodhi means awakening or enlightening, and citta which is mind or consciousness, but is sometimes translated as heart/mind.  In Tibetan Buddhism, the heart and mind were recognized as a single unit that operated to drive our experience of consciousness.  Sometimes it is thought of as beyond thinking and feeling—an openness that transcend the physical experience of living.  B. Alan Wallace, a Buddhist scholar, even throws in the term, Spirit, to try a get at the spaciousness of Bodhicitta.  Bodhicitta is getting at this experience of being open to whatever is needed, without hanging on to our own fixations.

Bodhicitta in its most complete sense would combine both:
  • The Absolute:  the arising of spontaneous and limitless compassion for all beings.  Absolute is this universal idea of spaciousness, freedom from attachments.
  • The Relative:  the falling away of the attachment to the illusion we have of our selves as something separate from the whole. Relative is referring to the everyday intention to want the best for others as if it were our own. 

These two aspects of Bodhicitta go hand in hand.

Bodhicitta is also the union of wisdom and compassion.  Sometimes, when we think about compassion, it might be assumed that we should just give all our money away.  Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called that idiot compassion. When we are truly present and aware in the moment, and have a fundamental desire to relieve the suffering of all beings, in that moment, with wisdom, we will know what is the best action to take.

Chogyam Trungpa also describes Bodhicitta as this tender spot within us all. Most of us, have an emotional place that we protect, wanting not to be hurt.  But by arousing Bodhicitta, we are opening the willingness to be vulnerable, to be open to the possibilities.  A sense of friendliness to all things and all people, including ourselves.

Pema talks about another key component of arousing bodhicitta as being a spiritual warrior—a sense of bravery and kindness, of courage and compassion.  We don’t normally think about warrior as a peaceful image, but in this description, we can see how the importance of a sense of fearlessness is a very valuable part of the process.  Bravery and courage implies going forward even if it feels uncomfortable or scary.  We will be breaking old habits to experience ourselves and the world in this new way, and the first reaction might be fear and trepidation.  The practices we will be discussing about seeing our fear clearly and dismantling the unskillful defensiveness that we have built around our heart.  Note that we will not do away with uncertainty—uncertainty is a natural part of living.  Instead, we learn to respond to uncertainty in a dramatically different way, using uncertainty as a reminder to be open to all the possibilities in each moment.

Lastly, Pema Chodron encourages us to see this practice as integrated into everyday life.  It is not as if we have to save another person from drowing in a river in order to open our heart.  There are small everyday ways that we can practice having an open heart/mind that can ultimately make a huge difference our lives and the lives of other. “Even the most mundane situation becomes and opportunity for awakening.”

In the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring these valuable practices:
  • Meditating with bodhicitta
  • Tonglen (a specific technique of giving and receiving, from simply wishing another to be free of suffering, all the way to visualizing exchanging oneself for others.
  • The Lojong teachings:  59 pithy slogans that can serve as easy reminders how to shift our perspective
  • Aspiration practice:  using the four boundless qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity/impartiality.
  • Reflection on the paramitas (“perfections” or skillful qualities):  including generosity, ethics, patience, enthusiastic effort, concentration and wisdom.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

TNH - 11 - Wise Effort

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We continue our series of talks from the book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, by Thich Nhat Hanh, and this morning I’ll talk about a key component of the Eightfold Path- Wise Effort.  We often talk about The Middle Way in Buddhism, finding the path between the extremes.  Wise Effort is often described as “not too tight and not too loose.”  How do we practice Wise Effort in everyday life?

First, it is helpful to understand that religion has a tendency to run in cycles.  Someone has a direct experience of awakening, seeing themselves and the world in a dramatically different way, an experience of that inter-connectness, of themselves with everything around them, as well as with a greater "energy" or some might say innate potential all around them.  This experience is often so powerful that others flock to them--like Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed--to study, learn and experience it themselves.  Then, the original person dies, and those left try to study, learn and practice as best they can.  Herein lies the problem--there is a tendency to hold on to the original direct experiencer’s experience, and work to preserve exactly what happened and what was said and what was done.  Slowly, the power of the direct experience gets less emphasis, and the power of the religious organization starts to dogmatize, concretize and use the teachings for gaining power over others.  Then, someone bucks the system, decides to go back to the direct experience, then reform arises and new enthusiasm, new teachings, leading eventually to new dogmatism and new power struggles.  Buddhism is no different.  There are many cycles of direct experience, rise of the organization, concretization of the experience, power struggle and decline of original purpose. 
The joy of this moment is that we are living in the time when Buddhism is being integrated into Western culture, and we are finding anew these amazing teachings.  We have this precious opportunity to have a direct experience of what the Buddha experienced, of what Jesus experienced, of what Mohamed and Moses experienced. The books, the Dharma talks, the practice are simply tools to support the direct experience
Wise effort teaches us how we can utilize these tools to experience awakening. Surprisingly, reading and practicing can also become obstacles.  For example, once anyone starts to practice meditation, it is a common occurrence that we inadvertently start to judge each meditation session as “oh, that was a good one!” or “that was awful—my mind just spun like a tornado the whole time—that was of no value!”  Awareness of what is happening in your mind and your body is very helpful, BUT judging each meditation session is NOT helpful.  Wise effort includes just continuing to practice whether the meditation feels blissful or boring or beautiful or painful.  An Indian man named Goenka, who founded the modern Vipassana movement would always say, “Continuity is the secret of success”, and “Start again”.
Goenka had this clear understanding that awakening is available here and now, in the midst of ordinary practice.  As we meditate and become aware of more present moments in life, we begin to awakened to the habits, judgments, labels, preferences, stories, rationalizations and everything else that may or may not be serving our greater good.  So, we can practice Wise Effort by continuing to meditate and be fully present, even when we don’t feel like it, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when, ESPECIALLY WHEN, we are having a strong emotion or thought or story.  That’s when the power of the practice really gets turbo-charged.  
I have a visual aid—this vase.  It seems that many of us often think of ourselves as individual silos of stuff, stuff collected from a lifetime of experiences.  What’s in your vase?  Probably some good stuff, some bad stuff, boring stuff and joyful stuff and painful stuff.  This Buddhist practice is about clearly seeing it all, everything that we are holding onto and think of as “Who We Are”.  Most importantly, this practice is about clearly seeing that we are NOT all this stuff in the vase.  Look inside, can you locate where exactly that story is you’ve been telling yourself about who you are and what kind of person you are?  Where are the stories about your family and your upbringing and what's right about you and what's wrong about you?  Where are those bad habits and judgments that often cause so much suffering?  
Through this practice, we can become aware that we often assume our vase is solid, separate and permanent, when that is simply not true.  The Buddha had a direct experience of this Truth.  The vase is just an illusion that we hold on to.  We are permeable, porous living beings with cells that are being born anew and dying in each second. We have this incredible ability to see clearly our stories, then to let fall away those stories that are no longer serving us.   
We can even create new stories that might be more helpful to this practice of awakening.  Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful, simple “story” that we could tell ourselves each day: 
“Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment as best I can
And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” 
These are words that he suggests, but I encourage you to come up with your own words.  What words of encouragement could you re-iterate to yourself regularly to remember to practice being present? Goenka said to himself, “Continuity is the secret of success.”  And it was!  And is!  He also said, “Start again.”  This simple phrase encourages us to simply start again, at the beginning of each meditation session, at the beginning of each morning, even at the beginning of each moment.  No matter how distracted or confused or frustrated or angry or anxious we might feel, we can start again with the practice of directly experiencing this moment, beyond old habits, judgments and stories.  Just start again and again, fresh and anew.  See through the vase full of “stuff” to the essence of aliveness that you are.

Nagarjuna wrote: 
“Clinging is to insist on being someone, not to cling is to be free to be no one”.  
In being no one, we are free to have the direct experience of simply being awake.

Friday, June 6, 2014

What are you leaving out?

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Father Theophane was a Trappist monk at the Catholic monastery in Snowmass Colorado.  He wrote a small, but pithy, enchanting book entitled, Tales of a Magic Monastery.  He lived for decades in this amazing place of raw beauty and nature.  The monastery covers an entire valley, surrounded by pristine mountains, herds of wandering antelope and elk, birds and creatures of many varieties.  There is a tiny hut built into the side of the mountain, far away from the monastery itself, and Father Theo would often go on silent retreats there by himself for months at a time.  On one of these occasions, he recounts that he prayed and meditated deeply for three months. Suddenly a question arose within him, “What am I leaving out?”  He couldn’t find a single answer, yet the question haunted him and became a silent mantra that arose again and again. 
When he finally prepared to leave the isolated hut, he was walking the narrow path back towards the monastery.  At that moment, the sun shined directly on a simple rock on the side of the path.  He bent down and lovingly picked up the rock.  He said, “I apologized to this beautiful rock that I had completely ignored. I stood up, looked around and apologized to all that surrounded me for not being fully present, apologizing not just to that which was beautiful and pleasing, but to everything that was part of that moment.”  What is it that we are leaving out? What are we ignoring or labeling as irrelevant or unworthy of our attention?  How might it change our experience by being aware, open and allowing to all of life, instead of limiting our perspective to only that which we decide might be pleasing while avoiding anything we fear might be uncomfortable?
WE CAN STOP WAITING FOR LIFE TO BEGIN, OR GET “BETTER” OR BE “RIGHT”.  Life is what is happening right now.    In Buddhism, “the Mandala of the Whole” is a metaphor for incorporating all of life into our experience, not just waiting for the “good parts”, and ignoring or avoiding the “bad parts”. Reflect upon your life and recall an event that change the course of your life.  You may have known it at the time or only realized it after the fact.  It might have been a joyful time or a horrific time.  Each moment can provide the fertile ground for growth and understanding.
Dr. Martin Seligman, who wrote Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, has come up with the term Post-Traumatic Growth or PTG, to demonstrate that PTSD is not the only response that human beings have to horrific situations.  There are documented cases where people are able to grow spiritually and find a deeper purpose in their life after an event that was disturbing, disheartening, distressing, even disastrous or horrific. 
Progress on the Spiritual Path
Often, we begin to explore a spiritual practice because of some difficulty or challenge we are experiencing.  We want to “overcome” this obstacle or get beyond it.  Jack Kornfield encourages us that:
 “With the awakening of wisdom, the heart gradually expands to hold the full paradox of life.”  
We often try to define ourselves and our situation in black and white terms.  What if we and the world around us are so complex, that these labels and judgments are exactly what is holding us back from seeing ourselves and the world more holistically? What if the deepest wisdom is actually found in the messiness and complexity?
Natural awareness practice:  We can practice being aware of where we are placing our attention in each moment.  Playfully explore experiencing yourself, and everything and everyone around you more directly--beyond labels, judgments or reference points.  We can all benefit from the practice of seeing the world and our “selves” with neutral curiosity and beginners mind.  There is wisdom to be found in each situation, in each moment.  This practice does NOT translate into being non-responsive (like a doormat), but rather leads to the practice of being wisely responsive.   May all beings be free from suffering; may all beings be happy.