Taking Back My Spiritual Practice

As you may have noticed (or the bruise to my ego is more likely that it has gone unnoticed by all but me) I’ve allowed my writing to fall by the wayside.  What has become more disheartening to me is that my spiritual practice has also fallen into obscurity as well.

This didn’t register with me right away.  I slowly became aware of my non-existent practice gradually.  Ironically, in conversations with others, I had convinced myself that it was in full swing.  But, of course, this was not true.  I always find it amusing how the Universe finds ways of pointing out your hypocrisy.

When I was fully engaged in my yoga practice (3-4 times a week) and sitting nightly for meditation I was rarely angry, I had a consistent feeling of peace, and I was much thinner. But, slowly, I started going to yoga less and less, mediation became a thing of the past, and I have creeped back up past the 200lb mark.

It has been anger and discontent that have been the most telling signs of my fallen away spiritual practice.  It is, as always, most telling when I’m driving.  I freely admit that I inherited my father’s lack of patience, especially behind the wheel of a car.  But, it has multiplied to the nth degree in the past few months.  I find myself screaming at drivers for the most ridiculous reasons.  How dare they drive the speed limit.  How dare they pull out in front of me.  Could they possibly go any slower as they make that turn?  I often feel that these actions are taken against me personally (yes, my ego is highly inflated as a result of not practicing).

I can no longer ignore the signals the Universe is throwing my direction.  This week I decided to take back my life and reignite my spiritual practice.  No more excuses.  No more, “maybe tomorrow.”  It is time for me to take control.  I refuse to allow myself to continue wallowing in anger, discontentment, and depression.  Let the journey back begin now.

Lighten Up Your Resolutions

I’ve never been one for making New Year’s resolutions.  I didn’t bother because I knew I would just wind up breaking them.  Resolutions tend to be large grandios dreams of what we would like to accomplish.  They become so inflated and detailed that we don’t follow through on them.

This year I will stick with my resolution of not making resolutions. I will, however, take heed of how I will continue to develop myself mentally, physically, and spiritually.  These are my areas of mindful determined improvement:

1) Writing – I love to write, but I don’t do nearly enough of it.  My favorite yoga teacher, Lezlie Laws, writes in her blog that artistic time should be scheduled regularly.  One of my favorite posts of hers discussed the widely held assumption that artists shouldn’t be hampered by schedules and time tables.  I don’t know about you, but I work better when my time, whether artistic, personal, or professional, is meted out for the most efficient outcomes.  I will not schedule myself to the point of impossibility.  I will layout a reachable goal that will allow a strong writing habit to be formed and nurtured.  I have many writing objectives I’d like to meet, but I will start small and build from there.

2) Physical activity – I am working to lose weight and get my health under control.  Of late, I have complained about aching knees, acid reflux, migraines, and myriad other ailments. Some of these come from work stress, but just as much comes from being over weight and out of shape.  So, last week I began taking matters into my own hands.  I began the Couch to 5K training.  My first few sessions have gone better than I hoped for.  It was quite a pleasant surprise.  But, unlike most resolutions, I did not set a lofty unattainable goal for myself when it comes to adding physical activity into my life.  I HATE going to the gym, I feel self-conscious and lost.  I do, however, enjoy walking around the downtown area.  I’ve been doing that already for the past few weeks.  So, why not add in some running?  I’ve always said I would only run if a murderous clown was chasing me, but the Couch to 5K training app has really put things into perspective for me.  I have also been lucky enough to have a great group of friends go out running with me.  Just last night five of us went out running together in our own little running club.  It made the 30 minute session fly by.  Having these valuable assists along the way is helping build a habit quickly. I’ve also set a goal to run my first 5K in March.  This will help me stick with it.

3) Spiritual growth – Today I began 2015 with an hour yoga session followed by 30 minutes of meditation at my favorite yoga studio.  For me, yoga has always been a form of physical meditation.  The asanas and focused breathing allow me to remain mindful and present.  Following this with quiet, contemplative meditation was just an added New Year’s bonus.  Meditation is vitally important to me.  It is also the task I often allow to fall by the wayside.  As I mentioned in another recent post I frequently make the excuse of not having enough time.  As I’ve told you before one of my favorite Zen proverbs is, “you should meditate for 20 minutes every day, unless you don’t have time, then you should meditate for an hour.”  Daily meditation is a goal I am setting for myself this new year.  I will not force myself into a certain time of day, but I will build it into my schedule the way I will build in my writing.

What resolutions will you parse out and whittle down from the grandios pie-in-the-sky dreams to manageable obtainable goals and habits?  Start your new year off right.  Set yourself up for positive self-improvement.

Namasté
Matthew

Spiritual Rock Bottom

Off and on for a while I’ve wondered if I can truly have a deep, great, spiritual connection with the divine creator.  Can I connect to my spiritual needs and desires?  My fear has been, recently, that since I have not had a time where I have hit rock bottom, I can’t truly recognize spiritual growth.

Let me first say, I am truly grateful for the life I live.  I am in no way complaining that I haven’t hit rock bottom.  I have had many amazing people in my life that have ensured I do not have to make the long painful journey of recovering my life from the bowels of heartbreak and struggle.  I have had bumps in the road, tough times, but nothing compared to what many have experienced in the way of pain.  For that, again, I am abundantly grateful.

With that being said, many spiritual teachers have said we are most open to spiritual growth as we recover from our lives crashing down around us.  As I’ve pondered this recently I’ve come to believe that we truly don’t need to hit those low points in our lives to become great spiritual seekers.  All we need is compassion, love, and openness.

We live in a connected digital world.  We can find any story on any subject within seconds. And for many, there is a morbid fascination with the suffering of others.  Schadenfreude, as the Germans have coined it.  Though I do not find happiness in others’ misfortunes, I can find the spark of spiritual growth.  I can find my compassion, I can find my love, I can find my openness, my gratitude in these painful, heart-wrenching stories that are no longer miles away but are a part of my spiritual psyche.  They cannot be ignored.  How can I help?  How can I make this world a better place?  How can I expand my love, compassion, and kindness to ensure there are less and less of these rock bottom moments in the world? That is the true definition of deep spiritual practice.

So, when, like me, you begin to wonder what you can do to deepen your spiritual practice, follow this advice: meditate on how you can expand your love, compassion, kindness, and gratitude into a world that so desperately needs them.

That Is Enough

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Life is stressful. Shit happens! We get sick. We lose our jobs. People we trust let us down. It is nice to think there will be a day when none of these life altering things will happen. But, we are not naive. We know the next shit storm is right around the corner. That’s what makes life a messy adventure.

This won’t be a long post. It will also not be a post about how your mindfulness or my Buddhist practice has taught me to appreciate the shit storms so that I will recognize the glorious sunshine that breaks forth. And though this is accurate it’s not the point of why I’m writing this.

The quote above is imperative to my life. My friendships have dwindled over the years. But, I can happily say the few amazing close friends that have remained a constant in my life have made all the difference. And spending time with them is more than enough. Often it’s the only thing that keeps me going. Go out, find those few, hold them close. Nurture those relationships. They will be your greatest champions; your strongest support.

Do You Like Yourself?

How do you begin to repair your life when you don’t like yourself very much?  Many new age and positive affirmation gurus can often be heard saying, “How can you expect someone to love you if you don’t love yourself?”  My question goes even further: How can you love yourself when you don’t even like yourself?  This sets you back even further.

This question could easily be seen as the over dramatic rant of an attention seeking masochist.  But it isn’t.  In fact, I suspect it is the foundation of the psyche of many of my fellow human beings, whether they are consciously aware of the fact or not.  It can be seen in the choices we make.  The unhealthy, destructive, or abusive relationships we hold onto because we only want someone to “love” us.  The lack of fulfillment we experience from our lives; career, hobbies, relationships, etc.  The excess weight we can’t lose, the excuses we make when our passions are ignored.  Can you recognize this in your own life?

I’ve experienced them all.  Some of them I’m still experiencing.  So often we are shocked by the truth we have ignored.  It lashes out at us when we least expect it.  Like a frightened caged animal.  We do anything to feel better about ourselves.  Which usually equals more poor choices made.  These choices are often addicting.  We make a choice, we feel better, momentarily, and then the feeling is gone.  We seek to recapture that feeling with further choices that do not lead to our fulfillment.  It becomes a vicious cycle. Repeated one night stands, gorging on food, spending money, drinking too much, illicit drugs, whatever your emotional drug of choice may be.  The high is always followed by an even deeper low than you were catapulted from.

Sadly, I do not have the answer to loving or liking myself.  I know that all I have been learning over the past year and a half is a light unto my path.  Mindfulness is the key.  I cannot allow the despair that I so often feel become the lock to my prison of self-loathing. Each day must be a further step to liking myself.  Each day must be a choice made not to accept my further self-destructive behaviors.  Let mindfulness be your guide.  Allow it to give you pause long enough to make the choice that leads to your higher purpose.  Each day you can learn to like one part of yourself.  Each day that you can make a choice that serves your higher good is a day closer to the ultimate prize of finally liking and loving who you are.

Stop, be mindful, make the choice for your higher good; start now.

Namasté
Matthew

Affirmation Meditation

I’ve written before about my meditation practice.  I’ve also discussed how it is precarious and that I don’t always do it consistently.  I have been away for a while.  But, coming back recently, I’ve added a little twist that I find quite refreshing and rewarding.

I am a huge fan of Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, Abraham (the Law of Attraction), and Neale Donald Walsch.  Each of these authors/life coaches are fervent believers in the power of positive thinking.  They preach the value of affirmations.  Sending your thoughts of how life should be out into the Universe so that it is reflected back to you.  I have begun using these affirmations as a part of my meditation practice.

My typical meditation lasts 15-20 minutes.  I set a timer (I used Insight Meditation Timer on my iPhone).  With that timer there is a “gong” every 5 minutes.  I typically focus on my breath, in and out, in and out, in and out.  Recently I have added positive affirmations to the last 5 minutes of my meditation practice.  This helps me add a feeling of involvement in the track my life is taking.

I have always loved Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation guidance. He invites practitioners to say or think, “Breathing in I calm my mind.  Breathing out I smile.”  I take this a little further.  I start by thinking, “Breathing in I am…” and here is where I add my favorite affirmations.  I focus on one thing I’d like to change or improve in my life and repeat it over and over or I choose numerous ones that will also send the positive outcomes I’m hoping to obtain out into the Universe. As I breathe out I think, “Breathing out I smile.”  You can also think to yourself, “Breathing out I am at peace.”  Here are some of the affirmations I use.  You are welcome to try them yourself or go for it and create your own.

Breathing in I am…

…at peace.
…happy.
…healthy.
…in a career that I love.
…living a life that fulfills me.
…financially abundant.
…intelligent.
…a powerful human being.
…confident.
…love.
…worthy of love.
…worthy of a career that I am passionate about.
…beautiful.
…strong.

The list can go on and on.  You can say each one as you breathe in and follow it with either, “Breathing out I smile.” Or, “Breathing out I am at peace.”  That choice is yours. But, even if you aren’t a Kool-aid swallowing believer in the power of affirmations, adding them into your meditation practice (which has proven mental, physical, and emotional benefits) can’t hurt to try.

I wish you all the best with your meditation practice.

Namasté
Matthew

Breaking Our Habits

I was sitting in yoga class tonight and my amazing instructor Lezlie was talking about our posture.  She was telling us that our habit is to slouch and round our backs in.  Now, I have heard her tell us this many times.  That part is nothing new.  But, the connection came when I began thinking of my own spiritual practice.  Recently I have been reading a great deal of Louise Hay and don Miguel Ruiz.  Both of these amazing authors and teachers discuss the way life trains us to react to the world around us.

Ruiz, in his book The Four Agreements calls life and our “domesticated” reactions to it “The Dream.”  Growing up we have built habits of how we respond to the world, based on the “lessons” we’ve learned from those around us.  These reactions become ingrained habits that become difficult to break.

Louise Hay also takes on our deep seated habits.  She deals with the emotional baggage we carry with us.  She believes that our negative outlook about ourselves and our lives can lead to “dis-ease” of the body, mind, and soul.

Each author has different ways to battle the habits.  Hay uses positive affirmations and Ruiz uses the Toltec teachings of the Four Agreements.  Now, this isn’t a blog post to extoll the virtues of these two amazing spiritual teachers.  I do recommend that you read their books and teachings, but that is not where we shall be stopping.

Let’s take this back to Lezlie’s comments in class and how that got me thinking.  I’ll admit, I often have bad posture.  But, since I’ve been practicing yoga I have become much more aware of that posture and how it affects me.  Awareness is the first step.  As I slouch, I gently (or as gently as I can remember to be) remind myself to sit up, straighten my back, and improve my posture.

But, my worst habits are from my own mind.  I became very aware of how cruel I’ve trained myself to be.  We were sitting in a twist pose that we haven’t done too much in my 3 years on the mat.  The gist of the pose is placing one leg over the other and you twist to face behind you.  Now, twists are my absolute favorite poses in yoga.  They stretch out my back and I feel amazing going into them.  My problem came when I was placing one leg over the other.  The leg on top just would not reach to the ground as it should have.  And, I found myself saying over and over, “you’re too fat for this pose, just look at you, it’s pathetic.”

I berate and belittle myself quite often.  This is one of the many things I am working on to improve myself.  And, I’ll admit that both Louise Hay and don Miguel Ruiz’s books are helping me a great deal. (OK, we’re getting to the habit part.) When I caught myself saying these things I wondered, does this poison I’m feeding myself come from a true belief that I am not good enough, or is it merely a habit that I’ve fallen into?

So, here I posit this theory: if I can begin to recognize that my cruelty that I harbor towards myself comes more from habit than true feelings, then I believe it will be easier to break these habits and retrain myself to speak compassionately and lovingly.

Smoking is a habit that many work to break and so many are successful.  Biting my nails was a long time habit.  Thanks to regular manicures I have broken that habit.  My Diet Coke habit has turned into a caffeine addiction. This I have not yet conquered, but I shall.  I do believe that my emotional self-cruelty habit is more toxic and dangerous than any of these. We must find a way to be compassionate towards ourselves.  So, if we are ever together and you hear me mumbling to myself, I am probably saying one of the positive affirmations that Louise Hay has been teaching me.

Awareness is the first step to identifying the habit.  Don’t beat yourself up because you caught thoughts roiling, unbidden.  These habits have been developed over the years and are deeply rooted in our psyches.  Be gentle and compassionate.  That is the key to breaking all habits.  It reminds me of one of my favorite quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This includes you.  Don Miguel Ruiz talks about being spiritual warriors to battle the negative aspects of the “Dream.”  Well, I am a spiritual warrior and I will battle every day to bring myself closer to my true amazing self.  Will you do the same?

Namasté
Matthew

What Right Do I Have?

First, I have to start this post by saying, I am living a blessed life.  I have never truly wanted for anything.  There has never been a night where I’ve gone hungry (being 40 pounds over weight proves that).  I have always had a roof over my head.  My mother was able to get me through college without me having to take out a single loan.  I have a career, I own a house, I have a family that loves and supports me, and have a great group of friends that are always there when I need them.  I. Am. Blessed.  (I just wanted to reiterate that.)

So, who the hell am I to be depressed?  I’ve spoken in many of my posts about my depression.  I am on medication, yes.  I do, from time to time, feel overwhelmed by the sheer weight of my depression.  But, what right do I have?  I have everything I could possibly need.  How do I allow depression to take such hold over me?  As a teacher I have borne witness to the lives of my students.  I have heard stories from them that have made me go home and cry.  I have listened as they tell tales of suffering that no human should ever endure, sufferings that I could never come close to experiencing with the strength they have mustered.  So, again I ask, what right do I have to allow my depression to hold me hostage?

Science tells me that it’s nothing I should be ashamed of; we cannot expect to conquer a chemical imbalance in our brains.  So, I should be ok that I often feel lonely without a “partner” by my side.  So lonely, that the empty feeling in my chest threatens to rip me open and reveal a heart unworthy of love.  So, I should feel ok that some days I don’t feel fulfilled in my life.  I worry about losing the people I love.  This is selfish when people are losing their loved ones every day.  Children lose their parents, husbands lose their wives, fathers and mothers lose their babies.

My thinking needs to reversed.  Perhaps it is not chemical imbalance in my brain.  Perhaps the imbalance comes from my way of thinking.  One of the major tenants of Buddhism is that human beings suffer because they desire and grow attached.  As I’ve learned and practiced my Buddhism more, I have struggled with how, as a human being, I can work, and make money, and own a house, and want a partner but do it all without desire and attachment.  I have obviously not learned the lessons completely or I don’t believe I’d still suffer from the depression that often grips me.  But, isn’t the first step recognizing the issue and working from there.

My desire to be loved causes me to suffer.  Whereas the gratitude I should show for the people that truly love me already, we heal this suffering instantly.  The desire for a new more lucrative and glamorous career mires me in pain that I would not need to endure if I could recognize and be grateful for the lives I shape every time I step into a classroom. The fact that Buddhism, as a faith, has been teaching the cessation of desire and attachment for the last 2500 years does speak to its staying power and validity.  Now it is time for me to embrace these teachings further, to rid me of my scourge of suffering.

The compassion I feel for my students that are in pain makes me stronger and hopefully offers them some solace.  The gratitude I feel for the friends and family that love me and whom I love fills those empty spaces in my chest.  Going forward, every time I hear myself say, “I want…” I will change that to, “I already have…” and fill that in with someone or something I am grateful for. And when the loss I so desperately fear comes, I will be grateful for the love they gave and the love I will always feel.  I will fight this chemical imbalance by putting my thinking and my compassionate love into balance.

Namasté
Matthew

Time To Embrace My “Right View”

I believe this quote should be my life motto.  Well, at least my dating life.

I am a lover of what is, not because I’m a spiritual person, but because it hurts when I argue with reality.

– Byron Katie

I have a poster hanging in the back of my classroom with the Buddhist Eight Fold Path printed on it.  The first step on the poster is “Right View.”  When I teach Buddhism and the Eight Fold Path to my students as part of the curriculum for ancient India and China, I tell my students that “Right View” is all about seeing and accepting the world as it truly is at that moment.  This quote speaks directly to “Right View.”  Seeing and accepting things as they are at the present moment.

Now, before you start rolling your eyes or asking me about changing your lot in life, that is not what I’m referring to.  I can discuss that in a later post.  Even if you do want to change your life for the better, the first step is to recognize where you are now and own it.

With that being said, I am really quite good at seeing life as it is at this moment.  My issue comes with accepting it as it is.  I see that I am 38 years old. But, I don’t feel 38, I don’t look 38, and I don’t act like many 38 year olds I know.  The worst comes with my dating life.  I look for younger guys that are skinny and (in my eyes) attractive.  And, I have had quite a few that found me intriguing and attractive in return.  This wouldn’t be such an issue if the reality of 38 was a fact that I accepted.  Often, when younger guys learn my age, even if we’ve hit it it off, things abruptly end.  Or, I often realize, too late, that our match was purely based on physical attractiveness (yes, I know it should have been obvious).  Mentally I feel 23, so what’s the problem with dating a 22 year old?

At this point you may be ready to throw a barrage of comments my way about the appropriateness of dating in my age range.  I promise, I’ve heard it all before.  As I’ve said, I see my reality, my issue is accepting it.  I know in my head that younger guys aren’t ready for what I want, even if they profess that they are.  I’m ready for a partnership, stability, and as one friend’s mother called it, my “forever friend.”  I know that I have a better likelihood of winning the MegaBall jackpot that I do of finding what I want with someone nearly half my age.  (I don’t even play the lottery.)

As we all know, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  Well, I’m here to tell you that I am insane according to Einstein’s definition.  It’s literally like I can’t help myself.  The Law of Attraction states that we are drawn to what we focus our minds upon.  Likewise, those things are drawn to us. So, it’s easy to get lost in reality when I look for younger and younger is placed in front of me.  I have to admit though, my head is hurting from all of the banging it does against the wall of frustration this insanity builds.

The time has come for me to work on the acceptance part of “Right View.”  I know I am 38, now it’s time for me to accept that fact.  I know I am barking up the wrong love tree.  It’s time for this 38 year old dog to accept he needs to change trees.  Love is…there waiting for me.  Life is great and I am ready to live it with the full recognition and acceptance of who I am.  I am ready to move forward minus the baggage of insanity I have been dragging with me for years.  I am ready to accept my “Right View” of life.

Oh yeah, one last question…does anyone know how I begin?

Namaste
Matthew

What do I do for me?

I want you to stop and think about this question for a moment. Don’t continue reading until you’ve pondered it for at least one minute.

As many of you know I deal with depression on a consistent basis.  I need to insert a caveat at this point – I do not walk around my life in a cloud of depression.  I am on regular medication and thanks to my father I take some herbal supplements that help as well.  But, from time to time those things aren’t enough and I become mired in my own thoughts that drag me into a depression.

My recent bout, however, left me more bruised than in past times and I made a dinner appointment with my friend/therapist, Liz.  There are two people in my life that I can count on to give me no nonsense advice without sugar coating it, one of those people is one of my best friends, Justin.  The other is Liz.  Where Justin’s advice is often a hard slap across the face, Liz’s advice is more gentle but still gets directly to the point.

While we were eating she stopped me from talking and asked me a simple question “What have you done for yourself lately?”  I opened my mouth to respond to her but then realized I didn’t have an answer to that question.  I tried to play coy, “What do you mean?”   She smiled at me and said, “You know exactly what I mean.  What have you done for yourself?”

The pause was palpable.  I racked my brain.  What have I done?  I’ve been reading, but even that was diminished during my time in Purgatory with my depression master.  What had I done for me?  The answer was, “nothing!”

She looked at me, that smile playing on her face again, “You know, I’ve noticed you are less depressed and more able to be at your best when you take time to do things for you.”

Could it possibly be that simple?  Was my depression lessened when I took time for me? How is that possible?  Doesn’t Buddhism teach us to do for others?  In fact, doesn’t all religion tell us to do for others, sacrificing ourselves in that pursuit?

Please understand, I am by no means a religious martyr.  But, as a teacher my job is to give of myself, as a friend my hope is to give fully of myself, as a brother and son my desire is to give fully of myself.  And, I do endeavor to do just that.  So, what is this about doing for me?

It was a logical and plain idea.  Many psychologists have talked about the need to refuel yourself emotionally and spiritually.  Even Oprah has touted the necessity.  I am loathed to admit it but my emotional and spiritual tanks are on empty.  They still aren’t nearly full enough.  As I looked back at the recent months I completely understood where Liz was coming from.  I’d stopped going to yoga, I was just too tired.  I’d stopped meditating because I wanted to  try to sleep.  I stopped writing because it was mentally exhausting for me.  I even stopped reading my spiritual books and put them aside for books of a more secular nature.  I wasn’t doing a damn thing for myself and my batteries were drained.

It’s been about a month since that meeting with Liz and I have made some positive changes.  I’ve been reading some great books by Pema Chödrön and Dr. Wayne Dyer. I’ve joined Weight Watchers, I started running (though found that my knees have NOT liked that idea).  I’ve also shared my love of yoga by teaching it at my school a few times to teachers and students.  (I knew things were bad when I gave up yoga.)  And though I have not started back on a regimented mediation schedule, I have been taking more time to stop and breathe and be mindful.  I call these my mini-meditation moments.  It works for me and as a former English teacher I love the alliteration.

Am I still struggling?  Yes.  Am I on the right track?  Yes, again.  Now, I want you to think back for a few moments.  What do you do for you?  Maybe you don’t feel depressed, but I know you feel stressed.  Stress attacks us on many fronts.  It could be the joyful stress of expecting a new baby, or a wedding.  It can also be emotional stress; the change of a relationship status, the loss of a loved one.  There’s also physical stress, feeling tired, overwhelmed, ill.  These things take a lot of our strength, often without us even knowing it. So, what do you do to make sure you are replenishing your batteries?  Take some time for yourself, each day.  Even if it’s just for twenty minutes.  I guarantee it will help.  It’s helping me.

Namastè
Matthew