About Last Night

by Krystn Ledoux

I could feel my eyes growing heavy and grainy as I sighed deeply and cast a weary glance at the paintbrush in my hand. It was well after 11 p.m. and I knew it was time to put my home renovations and myself to bed for the night. As has become my ritual since we purchased our fixer-upper last fall, I moved quickly with my cleanup, hoping to steal a few precious minutes of relaxation before my eyes closed involuntarily.

We each have our unique definition of what passes for relaxation and mine happens to be catching up on the day’s news before bed. It is a habit that I have never been able to shed, born of a long career in politics. As the soft glow of the TV filled my darkened house, I was immediately assaulted with the horrific headline: 22 DEAD IN TERROR ATTACK AT ARIANA GRANDE CONCERT IN MANCHESTER UK. Images of panic-stricken teens, ’tweens, children and their parents immediately sent me careening into a familiar routine. Momentary shock followed by immense sadness and, ultimately, a rising sense of panic and fear.

As a child, my family, friends and teachers labeled me as “sensitive.” The pain, sadness, joys and triumphs of others have always readily become mine. I never considered this to be a particular liability until the boundless optimism and carefree days of my youth gave way to the realities and responsibilities of adulthood and parenting. Over time, my highly sensitive and empathetic nature transformed into progressively crippling anxiety and fear.

As the horrific news from England played in an endless loop, my mind went into overdrive unleashing emotions and thoughts too overwhelming to process. What if that had been my 11-year-old daughter and me at the concert? How can I help? Those poor innocent kids! Oh god, please tell me my friends who moved to England weren’t there. I want to turn back time and make everyone safe. I’ve been down this well-worn path so many times before that the ending is almost never in doubt. I was doomed to a sleepless night of tears and panic, pacing the house, endlessly checking on my children, praying for exhaustion to bring respite.

But last night was different. Mixed in with my jumble of thoughts and emotions, I could almost hear my colleague telling me to “just breathe.” Calling me a novice at mindfulness might be overly generous, but since I began working at Copper Beech Institute, mindfulness has become a part of my daily life. However, prior to last night, I had never attempted to use mindfulness in a moment of crisis. With nothing to lose, I turned off the TV, got comfortable and found my breath.

My breath was ragged and irregular at first, and focusing on it wasn’t very calming. As my breathing slowly returned to normal, though, I found my mind following suit. Everything I had been thinking and feeling was still there, but it was like someone had untangled a hopelessly jumbled string of Christmas lights. I felt able to concentrate on one thought at a time, accept it, file it away, and move on to the next.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that at some point, I became so relaxed that I fell sound asleep. My husband found me on the couch this morning, puzzled as to why I was still dressed and not under a blanket. He regarded me with barely concealed amusement and mild suspicion as I recounted the prior night’s events. Normally his amusement would have annoyed me, but today I am deeply content in knowing that I was able to help myself last night in a way that no medication, therapy, or glass of wine ever has. Though my mindfulness practice may continue to have training wheels for years to come, I am excited and energized to learn more and dive deeper into my inner reservoir of strength and peace.

Krystn Ledoux is the marketing manager for Copper Beech Institute. After a lengthy career in politics and non-profit association management, Krystn has dedicated herself to promoting Copper Beech Institute’s transformational programming in the hope of helping individuals live more joyful, peaceful and healthy lives.

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Entering the Christian Buddhist Path

by Christina Leaño

I was 22 years old and holding tightly to my driver, praying that I wouldn’t die on the back of the motorcycle. We were swerving and curving through some unpaved jungle roads on the Philippine island of Mindanao. I was certain that these were my last moments on earth.CLeano

I was on my way to my first Buddhist retreat having been invited by my host father, a Zen practitioner. I was in the Philippines as a volunteer with the Mennonite Central Committee and was doing language studies before starting three years of service with a Filipino environmental group.

Once we arrived at the Zen sesshin, we entered into the rhythm of silence across several days. Sitting. Walking. Sitting. Walking. We slept on bamboo floors and practiced qigong to the chirping of birds. Toward the end of the retreat we each had a chance to have an interview with the teacher.

I can remember sitting in the bamboo hut waiting my turn. I was terrified. As a cradle Catholic, the Zen practice was both mesmerizing and confusing. Meditation brought me to a place of silence that felt both natural and new. I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening in the stillness. I just knew that something deep within me wanted it. Craved it. I was connecting to a new part of myself that could taste freedom, and God, in a new way.

And yet I squirmed with the thought of committing to this practice, which I would do upon meeting the teacher and receiving my koan, or Zen riddle which was supposed to help trip me into enlightenment. There was no mention in my decades of Catholic education of where Buddhism or Zen might fit in. Even Christian forms of silent meditation were shunned upon at the time. I was certain I was going to hell.

I was just about to give up my place in line when I remembered that earlier in the day we had celebrated Catholic mass. This retreat had been organized by Assumption Catholic sisters who had been trained by another Catholic sister, Elaine MacInness who was a Zen roshi in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition after years of study in Japan. Somehow these other Catholics, priests and religious sisters no less, didn’t seem to have a problem incorporating Zen into their Christian spirituality. Maybe I could too.

I decided to go through with my interview with the Zen teacher. I went in, did my prostrations, and received my koan. The decision to stay was the beginning of a lifelong exploration and commitment to Buddhist practice that continues today. The decision in that bamboo hut two decades ago changed my life.

Today my Buddhist study and practice is largely in the Western Theravada tradition, although I also draw deeply from the Tibetan tradition. It has transformed my relationship to my Christian faith, to God, and to the world. Here are a few ways:

  • I often incorporate the body into my spiritual practice. In my most awakened moments at Sunday liturgy, I will connect to the actual sensations of receiving Eucharist, the wafer on my tongue, the saliva forming to meet it, and the decision to fully receive it.
  • I read scripture in a more embodied manner, tuning into the energies of the words and the invitations being offered. It makes lectio divina a process of truly resting in the Word to marinate in God’s loving embrace.
  • I have learned ways to cultivate “loving my enemy” through the practice of metta. The process of systematically offering loving kindness to self, benefactor, loved ones, a “neutral person” and then difficult people help me to respond to this difficult mandate of Jesus.
  • The development of awareness helps me to better see and respond to unhelpful thoughts or difficult emotions as they arise — judgments, anger, frustration, irritation. No longer caught in the throes of these mind states, I can better touch into the virtues of faith, hope, and love that our faith calls us into.

The list of ways that I have integrated the Buddhist path into my Christian faith is long and rich. It is an ongoing process of exploration and deepening, always with the intention of awakening to God’s love and compassion within myself and sharing that with others. Who would have thought the end of a terrifying motorcycle ride would have been the beginning of something so much bigger and transformative.

Christina Leaño is a trained meditation teacher, retreat facilitator, and spiritual director who has been studying Christian and Buddhist contemplative practices for close to 20 years, including three years in a Cistercian monastery. She is a recent graduate of the Community Dharma Leaders Program through Spirit Rock Meditation Center. She currently serves as the associate director for the Global Catholic Climate Movement, a Catholic network responding to the moral imperative of climate change. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and M.A. in Systematic Theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She will be leading a retreat titled Walking the Christian Buddhist Path next month at the Bethany House of Prayer in Arlington, Mass. Learn more about Christina at christinaleano.net.

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Simple But Not Easy: The Right Effort of Beginning Again

by Sharon Salzberg

When I first began studying with the Burmese master Sayadaw U Pandita, I had been practicing meditation for 14 years. He was a powerful teacher with a rigorous pedagogy, requiring that each student meet with him one-on-one six days a week for interviews to describe our meditation experiences to him. Nervous and not sure what to expect from the interviews, I resolved that I would take notes after each of my meditations so that I could describe my experience precisely.

During our first interview, I shared everything I remembered (and had written down) about one of my meditation sittings. U Pandita nodded and said, “Well, in the beginning it can be like that.” A one-sentence response, and that was the end of the interview.

To my disappointment, each of our subsequent interviews followed a similar pattern. I’d come in fully prepared to describe a revelatory meditation sitting or a horrible one (or anything in between), and he would give me the consistent but frustrating reply, “Well, in the beginning it can be like that.”

The beginning?! I’d think to myself. I’ve been practicing for 14 years!

I couldn’t stand the fact that U Pandita thought of me as “at the beginning.” How could he not sense my progress? These feelings of resentment persisted until one day something clicked.

During my previous years living in India, I had been conceiving of my meditation practice in terms of progress. I knew that I was diligent and consistent, and thought I was doing well. I was on the right track toward enlightenment, or something, and wanted to hear that my efforts and perseverance were “paying off.” It’s no surprise that U Pandita’s constant references to my being a “beginner” made me annoyed. I was so obsessed with a goal-oriented way of thinking.

But U Pandita’s words were definitely not meant to invalidate me. I know now that I was simply choosing to let my insecurity dictate my response to him. I was reading negativity in the idea of what it means to be a “beginner.”

Over time, his response invited me to realize the challenge of choice that faces us in terms of how we respond to anything in life — whether in meditation, at work, in our relationships. If we make a commitment to living in the present moment, we are always “at the beginning” of whatever it is we are doing, constantly presented with thoughts, judgments, observations, and/or sensations that interrupt up us amidst our daily activities. The challenge is in the choice to accept these things and simply “begin” again, returning to the present moment, or to grip tightly to some idea of what we should be doing and flood ourselves with judgment in the process.

Many people, myself included, come to meditation with an initial expectation of immediate clarity and peace. We anticipate nirvana, filled with white light and an overwhelming sense of freedom. Contrary to these beliefs, meditation takes effort, a word most of us associate with burden. But the effort we make in meditation is not harsh and fueled by feelings of self-loathing or pressure. It’s an unrestrained willingness to “stick it out,” to recognize our ability to feel a sense of freedom through the act of accepting what is.

The idea of Right Effort is one component of the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path, and traditionally means directing our energy toward full awareness, with compassion and courage. But what does the Right Effort look like in our lives?

The other day, my friend told me that she had been having the same argument with her partner, almost every other day for about two weeks. She was aware that there was something about their dynamic and the way they were communicating about this particular issue that was resulting in the same conflict, again and again. As we have all surely experienced, there was something seductive and perhaps perversely comforting about the act of engaging in conflict — of rehearsing the habits of mind that both she and her partner were used to in the context of their relationship.

After those two weeks, however, something clicked for my friend. She told me she was finally able to sit with the feelings of discomfort she felt toward her partner, rather than engaging in a provocative dialogue that merely made the situation worse. The feelings did not go away, and she did not ignore them, but she said she was simply able to sit with herself, to stop and notice — “Ah, I am feeling resentful right now” — rather than immediately text her partner something that she knew would trigger him to engage her in emotional combat.

This act of seeing discomfort for what it was took effort for my friend: she practiced the cultivation of compassionate awareness and gave attention to the feelings she was having without feeling the need to judge, analyze, or act on them. Sure, she admitted that she felt moments of guilt or self-loathing along the way, but, by practicing her choice to make an effort to simply be present with her feelings, she allowed herself to be positioned with greater emotional freedom.

One of the most proactive steps we can take toward cultivating real happiness involves the simple recognition that we can make a choice to fill ourselves and our lives with negative energy. Or not. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “Self-Reliance” that “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” Intimacy with our experiences, feelings, and thoughts, in other words, is the simplest and most essential way to feel peace, even in the face of difficult experiences. It involves a willingness to find harmony with the truth of change, of contingency, with not being able to exert control over all that we wish to control. No external set of circumstances can prevent us from peace.

It takes effort to train ourselves to meet joy and sorrow alike with our full attention, kindness, and love — especially when we tend to judge our experiences with assumptions and distorting patterns of thought. But making that effort is not compulsory. It is our choice, a simple choice. And accepting that it may not be the easiest one is the first step in the practice of surrender.

Originally published on On Being October 26, 2015.

Sharon Salzberg is a meditation teacher and New York Times best-selling author. She is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and has played a crucial role in bringing Asian meditation practices to the West. She will be offering a weekend Lovingkindness Retreat at Copper Beech Institute, June 9–11, 2017.

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When the Shift Hits the Fan

By Brandon Nappi

Maybe you’re like me. You tend to see the suffering of the world and feel its weight on a daily basis. You notice how unfair and random life seems to be. The countless injustices of war, racism, chronic poverty, systemic inequity smolder within until you flare up and flame out with indignation. Global problems intertwine with personal problems as you survey your own busyness, your messy house and your vague sense of uneasiness. You blame the kids, your partner, your parents, the government, Wall Street, technology, world leaders and God. At some point, you’ll likely even blame yourself — which is a vicious half-truth. While we are all to some degree responsible for today’s global challenges, the healing and peacemaking we most need around the world and around our dinner table will not begin with assignment of blame. In the end, all blame misses the point because it is rooted in an endless, subjective analysis of the past. Blaming only surrenders our authority to “author” a new path forward.

The hallmarks of the contemplative life are freedom, wonder and love. This is why we practice mindfulness, and this is why we developed Copper Beech Institute. We recognized that we need a circle of friends to support our commitment to waking up to compassion and awareness moment by moment. So we create a new center for mindfulness practice where we could ask the most fundamental questions that human beings can ask: How can I find contentment? How can I live with grace and equanimity? How do I transcend the incessant cycles of craving and aversion that seem to govern life? How can I find deep connection to myself and the people I encounter?

Our culture has persuaded us that thinking is the primary and defining human activity. The mind excels at calculating, safeguarding, planning and analyzing. These are critical skills necessary for our safety and survival, but they are not the only or the most important resources to cultivate. Often we live with the false assumption that if we get the right job, find the perfect partner and avoid unpleasant circumstances we will be at peace.

Outer change will not replace an inner shift. Until a contemplative shift in awareness is made, we will always live on a spectrum of pain and unhappiness. We will complain about the traffic; work will be unsatisfying; the vacation will seem over-rated; and family and friends will constantly fall short of expectations. The greatest gift we can give to our family, friends, co-workers and the entire planet it our willingness to wake up by cultivating present moment awareness.

I cherish mindfulness because it’s nothing special; it’s completely ordinary and doesn’t require any special set of conditions. Mindfulness practice offers us a deep reservoir of presence no matter what is happening. The most sturdy and reliable resource we have is the power of our presence. Mindfulness does not exclude any situation, but includes the entire spectrum of the human experience by bringing curiosity and compassion to whatever is arising. This warm act of loving awareness requires a softness in the heart and a willingness to be vulnerable. Through my practice I bring healing to the greed, selfishness and fear that are all too ready to colonize my life if I am not aware.

Still, living a life of deep awareness doesn’t protect us from pain; in fact, we might feel the inevitable pain of life more deeply and more often when we commit to living authentically and fully present to each moment. The inevitable lesson of mindfulness is that we can know true happiness only to the extent that we know true sadness.

Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. By suffering I mean the drama of craving and resistance. We too often cling to what we need to let go of and run away from what we think will harm us. Such strategies for happiness are hardwired to fail because they run contrary to life itself.

Happiness is not about creating extraordinary moments, but appreciating ordinary ones. Our awareness is our most powerful resource. Our presence is our gift offered freely in the service of healing and compassion. This is the shift that needs to hit the fan—one breath, one moment at a time.

Dr. Brandon Nappi is founder and executive director of Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 50 transformational programs annually to foster peace, resilience, and compassion in everyday life. For a listing of all retreats led by Brandon, click here.

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