There is Life After the Thesis

After chronicling my thoughts, feelings, ideas, and experiences throughout the thesis process on this blog (formerly entitled Rites of a Thesis), it seemed odd to me to simply let the blog go just because I had turned in my thesis and graduated. I don't want to merely "shelve" my thesis nor do I want all that I got from my time at Naropa to lie dormant. I want my thesis to continue to live and breathe and become, and I would like all the teachings and experiences I had during my time at Naropa to do the same. So I am keeping the blog (changing the title), and am commiting to myself to (w)rite on as I journey forward.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stopping to Smell the Oatmeal

This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings and much hard work.
May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.

May we recognize and transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed, and learn to eat with moderation.
May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet and reverse the process of global warming.
We accept this food so that we may nurture our brotherhood and sisterhood, strengthen our sangha and nourish our ideal of serving all beings.

~ Eating Meditation, Deerpark Monastery

This morning I made a bowl of oatmeal. I added banana and apple slices, a few almonds and walnuts as well as a few dried cranberries. I lit some candles, took out a cloth napkin, and read aloud the Eating Meditation above. Slowly and deliberately I ate my breakfast in silence.

I tasted the sweetness of the oatmeal and banana. My teeth and tongue felt the softness of the banana and cereal, as well as the crunchiness of the apple, the nuttiness of the walnuts and almonds, and the chewiness of the cranberries.

It took me twenty minutes to eat the whole bowl. Nothing to do. Nowhere to go. Except to be be present and mindful of my meal.

Breakfast was delicious and filling.

I attempted to eat at least one mindful meal a week when I returned from Deerpark Monastery this summer. However, I slacked off after two weeks and have only eaten mindfully maybe two or three times since. It was nice to take the time and engage in a mindful meal this morning.

I started thinking about how any mindful practice automatically seems to induce me to be more mindful in all areas. Following breakfast, I removed a big load of laundry from the dryer. I have been listening to Jack Kornfield's book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry on CD in my car (thanks to my friend, Joan, for passing that along to me). Having just returned from a trip to California which included the opportunity to hear HH the Dalai Lama, enjoy time with some of my oldest and dearest friends, as well as time off work, I would say it was a fairly "ecstatic" trip. Easy to be present, easy to tap into all that is good. At home, life resumes in regularity. Ordinariness.

As I folded my warm, clean clothes this morning, I realized how much I enjoy this simple, ordinary, "regular" chore....well, I enjoy it when I have time and choose not to think about it as a "chore."

As I folded my clothes, I thought about how nice it was to fold them, to take care of these things that are important to my daily life. How grateful I am to have clothes of my choosing, that I can afford, and that I have a washer and dryer in my home to help me keep them clean. I noticed the different patterns in my socks and my underwear (and thought what a funny breed we are to make such "necessities" such fun), I felt the contrast in the differing materials - jeans, T-shirts, bras.

The extraordinary in the ordinary. The beauty in the mundane.

And then my thoughts turned to my students.

Parent-Teacher Conferences begin tomorrow. Every student is different. Each have different needs, motivations, ideas, ways of learning and taking in information. Each come from different families, backgrounds, ways of looking at the world. So do their parents.

Sometimes I forget how extraordinary each of these people are. It's not that I don't see my students as individuals (or their parents), it's just that sometimes I get wrapped up in my needs and my ideas in the course of the day: Am I providing the best information? The right information? Am I teaching the class well? If so-and-so isn't paying attention, what happens to the class as a whole? Not that these are "bad" thoughts to have, it's just that I sometimes forget that each and every student has their own agenda, their own needs, their own own-ness (I am not sure what "own-ness" actually is, but I can't think of a better word right now).

Each student is an extraordinary being. So are each student's parents. In the course of an ordinary day, if I am not paying attention, I can miss that truth.

May I be present for each of my students and their parents. May I listen to each of them deeply. May I speak with only right speech; with attention, care, and compassion. May I share only that which is necessary, helpful, kind, and truthful.

May I stop and TRULY smell the oatmeal!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Becoming Comfortable with Impermanence (Kinda, Sort-of, More-So-Than-I-Used-To-Be)

One must accept the serenity of the winged life, of ebb and flow, of intermittency.
~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Buddhism acknowledges impermanence as a way of life. Old time members of Alcoholics Anonymous tout (and rely on) the slogan, "this, too, shall pass." Though I have intellectually understood the idea of change - and, of course, have experienced it for over 46 years - emotionally, at times, I have often fought against this idea with a vengeance: holding on to what I [think I] want, how I would like things to be - often leaving deeply embedded nail marks on people, places, things, and situations, as I have, to no avail, refused to let go.

Over the past couple of years, I have started to release my tight grasp, have begun to let go (or, at least, let be), of what I want or how I think things should be and have started to accept people, places, things, and situations as they are right now. Not always. Not in every moment and not in every situation. But definitely much more often.

This past summer and this new school year have given me the opportunity to practice flowing with impermanence on a very conscious level. First, I graduated in June, and while it has been a luxury to have some extra time and to have the pressure of assignments, papers, and deadlines removed, the loss of the intensity, the intellectual, emotional and spiritual challenges, and the loss (albeit, not completely, just daily) of a close community of people who share a common language and goals has left me feeling a bit hollowed.

I also let go of a relationship that I had been hanging onto two years too long. While I am aware that this is actually a positive change, it has been an adjustment.

This current school year has given me the chance to switch teaching hats. I moved from a full-time 6th grade teacher into the role of Drama teacher, where I spend my days teaching both sixth and twelfth grade students. I have missed having a contained classroom, and have struggled with the transition of teaching older students, who are in many instances, "set in their ways."

However, there have been some lovely moments through all of these changes as well. There is a kind of serenity within that I don't recall having before. I am more want to notice what I am feeling, as well as my responses to different people and situations, with an "Isn't that interesting?" perspective rather than a reactive one. I believe that all my years in AA coupled predominantly with my Naropa education and continuing journey in Buddhist practices are helping me to become much more mindful of who I am and what I am doing in the here and now.
Psychotherapist, writer, teacher and co-founding member of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Sylvia Boorstein says:

Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience.
It isn't more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.

Maintaining my personal ritual practices (i.e. daily meditation, awareness walks with my dog, Love - albeit only about once a week now) since graduation has helped immensely to be sure. Shamatha, in particular, has been a very important component - I believe - in my ability to ebb and flow with daily impermanence, as well as with the "bigger" changes that have come my way.
Also, deepening my practice through the time I spent at Deerpark Monastery, continuing my Shambhala Training (I completed my Level 3 Training a few weeks ago and will be taking my Level 4 Training in November), and also beginning to meet with a monthly sangha meditation group have also helped to keep me balanced when life's winds seem to kick up and throw me a bit off course. I "take comfort" in my continuing practice.

My friend, Debbie, snapped the above photo outside a Starbucks store recently and sent it to my cell phone. It made me smile, as I received it while I was at work and the timing could not have been better. I had been ruminating about my classroom rituals. Last year they were such a meaningful part of my class work. This year, they seem to be practiced more along the lines of routine. I have been wondering if it was the way I introduced them....or if it is the way my students have seemed to only semi-embrace them...or perhaps there is something else that has led me to feeling that the rituals we are practicing don't feel sacred like they did in the past.

However, by simply continuing to practice them, I do take comfort in the rituals themselves. It reminds me of Mother Teresa and how she wrote in her diary and confided in her spiritual counselors that she had experienced the loss of her faith and yet she continued to perform service work and prayer. I am also reminded of my acting training where I was encouraged to be present and to "come from where you are" and at the same time, knowing when it is important to rely on technique.

And yet, I know - I really do know - that this, too, shall pass. My classroom rituals will have meaning again. Or perhaps I will let go of some and add anew. And maybe in being present for the fact that my classroom ritual practices feel a bit meaning-less, I can begin to understand what they might mean on a deeper level. I trust "that nothing is static or fixed," as Pema Chödrön reminds us:

Everything is in process. Everything—every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate—is always changing, moment to moment.

And so it is.