The Art of Listening

How many of us know how to really listen? Do we know how to listen to our own mind as it careens out of control and races off on some tangent or other, into the past or the future? Or to others—our coworkers, loved ones, or strangers—as they attempt to communicate something to us? To the everyday sights, sounds, and sensations that surround us? Even if we think of ourselves as good listeners, and are seen that way by others, it is wise to be open to the idea that there is always more to learn, that there are deeper levels of hearing we can access.

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The practice of listening can be done anywhere at any time. Opportunities to hone your listening skills are presented to you throughout each day. All that is required is to still yourself and pay attention. Once you decide to really listen, bring your whole body into the activity, not just your ears and your brain. You do this naturally anyway, but I invite you to witness yourself doing it and then expand upon this power.

The very next time you hear a pleasant sound—a child’s laughter or a church bell—stop and pay attention; breathe it into you. Listen to it with your gut, your belly, even your toes. Do it right now as you read this. Listen to the room sounds in this way. Do the same thing with an unpleasant sound—police sirens or traffic noise. First, notice your reaction and resistance to it, your impulse to will it away, and how that affects your body. Then invite the sound in (what other choice do you have?) and notice the difference. Rather than let any sound, pleasant or unpleasant, become a distraction, allow it to be part of your environment, part of your personal space. Be with the sounds, move with them, and give up the battle to control them.

Here’s an exercise that can be practiced every time you exchange words with someone else.

First, as they speak to you, notice your reaction to their words. Are you thinking about how their message affects you, how to respond to them, or what they need from you? Do you find yourself interjecting comments or gestures to signal to them that you’re listening? How much of your listening is about you rather than about them?

Second, experiment with the notion that it’s okay for you to say nothing. Then just listen and curb your desire to jump in, to assert yourself. Wait until they’ve said all they want to say before you speak. If there’s silence, as they struggle to formulate an idea or reach for some word, let the silence be okay. Don’t rush to fill it. Practice being silent and just listening.

Engage a friend in this listening exercise: Take turns speaking and listening. Choose a topic to talk about—your boss, your partner, a recent experience, or a career ambition—and then spend five minutes listening, as your friend speaks, and five minutes speaking, as your friend listens. When you listen, just listen—in stillness and in silence. In no time, you will see that when you free yourself of the obligation to respond, not only do you become a better listener, but also your friend feels heard in a new and expansive way.

(from Serenity in Motion)

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Blueberry Zucchini Muffins

I made these muffins in August when freshly picked blueberries and farm fresh zucchinis were abundant. But they are just as good any time of the year using frozen organic blueberries and whatever green zucchini you can find.

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They can be whipped up in 10-15 minutes and then baked for 20-25 minutes for a healthy treat in less than an hour. And freeze whatever you don’t eat of the first batch for a handy anytime snack.

Myochi’s Blueberry Zucchini Muffins

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Brush Painting

I’ve always been drawn to the simplicity, elegance and beauty of Asian ink painting. There is a calmness and serenity that seems to radiate from the delicate nature of each work of art.

Earlier this year, with absolutely no training, and just for fun, I began to play with a brush and some sumi-e ink. I painted some ensos for my NYZCCC class as my final project and got the brush-painting bug. So when my friend Toinette Lippe – whose beautiful brush paintings I’ve long admired – offered a class at a convenient time for me, I jumped at the chance.

My meditation practice has taught me that, in the words of D.T. Suzuki: “Nothing can ever really be learned until it works through the nerves and muscles.” So I know it will take me years of practice to mature in this new endeavor. I look forward to the day when my body can paint a beautiful brush stroke.

The lovely Toinette Lippe

Practice

First class group table

My art practice

My first attempt at drawing bamboo

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Beautiful Terror

At the recent day of mindfulness on September 28, I gave a dharma talk about opening our hearts to another, to ourselves, to love… and how terrifying that can be. I thought about it for days before. Then I spent Friday and Saturday preparing for the day, searching through notes, books, and my heart to put together some words that would inspire those who would be participating in the day. I also cooked, baked, cleaned, set up the zendo and did many other chores in preparation. By the end, it felt like I’d attended a full week of sesshin.

My cushion ready for my dharma talk

My cushion was ready for my dharma talk even if I wasn’t.

I knew that in order to give such a talk, my heart had to open to the group. I was scared. And up until the kinhin (walking meditation period) just before the scheduled talk, I thought about asking the group if they’d like to take a nature walk rather than sit and listen to my dharma talk. But I didn’t offer that. Because as unprepared as I felt and as terrified as I was to give this talk, I knew I had to do it. If I didn’t, I knew I would be terribly disappointed in myself. And that would have been worse than falling short in the eyes of the participants. Plus, I was curious about what I might say and learn from the experience.

And now, sharing this with the world, or with whomever chooses to click and listen, is another step in the direction of opening my heart. So, I offer you these words as prayer and hope that you discover something about your own heart as you listen.

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Mindful Quotes for October

With the changing weather, leaves beginning to fall, and the holidays and winter ahead of us, even in New York City I feel surrounded by nature. The message of impermanence abounds.

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“Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails.”
Henry David Thoreau

 

“I discovered the secret of the sea in meditation upon a dewdrop.”
Kahlil Gibran

 

“When it gets dark enough, you can see the stars.”
Charles A. Beard

 

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
Meister Eckhart

 

 

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Breathing

This is where it all begins—and ends. The foundation of any quiet corner is breathing. If you breathe into your quiet corner and allow your breathing to direct you in your search, it will create space and quiet for your corner. As I concentrate on breathing slowly, my focus shifts and I welcome the ensuing calm as it enfolds and comforts me.IMG_1389

Most of us breathe very shallowly. We only breathe into our throats and don’t allow oxygen deep into our bodies. Take a moment. Become aware of how you’re breathing in this moment. Is your breathing deep and calm? Or is it shallow and hurried? The next time you feel stressed, panicked, or otherwise pressured, again notice your breathing patterns. Your breathing will be shallower than normal. Or you may discover that you are actually holding your breath, not breathing at all. This is a common response to stress. Think for a moment about what this might mean to your well-being.

As a simple exercise, take a breath through your nostrils and send this breath into your lower chest. Continue inhaling as you first fill up your lower chest, then your middle chest, and then your upper chest. Slowly release this breath—first the upper chest, then the middle chest, and then the lower chest. Do this three times as slowly as possible. In doing this, you will discover your first quiet corner.

If you take three deep breaths a few times during each day, especially at those critically stressful moments, you’ll be on your way to reducing stress and introducing some serenity into your life. It is truly simple and immediately rewarding.

from Find a Quiet Corner

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Becoming Aware 1:1

Situating Yourself: What is Our Purpose Here?

Like everyone else, you probably are searching for something in this life to satisfy a dream, a longing, or something that you can’t even name. As you begin to read this book you may even have an agenda for yourself. Perhaps you’re looking for answers to the gnawing questions in your brain about what your role in this life is. And perhaps you’re looking for some serenity, a little peace of mind that will at least temporarily take you away from your troubles. Maybe you’ve tried other things to help you gain this peace and nothing has worked, so you’re skeptical that anything can work.

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Perhaps you’ve reached some measure of peace in your life and want to go deeper. You want to experience more joy. You want to experience your life more fully, and you want to achieve an emotional balance so that the highs and lows of life are moderated.

Or maybe you’re committed to the pursuit of happiness at any cost, or to acquiring things like money and power because you believe that these will give you joy and freedom.

Perhaps you don’t even know what you want—you just know that something is amiss, something needs to happen inside you because no matter what happens to and around you there is no satisfaction. Maybe you have everything you’ve ever dreamed of—the compatible relationship, the satisfying job, the nice home, plenty of love from children and family—yet something inside feels empty. You might even hesitate to acknowledge this empty feeling, thinking that your friends and family wouldn’t believe you or would consider you ungrateful.

Perhaps you believe you have a fatal flaw that nothing and nobody can correct, and up to this point in your life you’ve kept it your secret. Or maybe you’re sitting with a minor under-the-skin-dis-ease, something you can live with but that colors the way you see everything. It’s not extreme, mostly it goes unnoticed by others, but it’s beginning to affect your behavior more and more. You’re simply fed up with it and want it gone.

Right now, try not to figure any of this out, and don’t worry about where or whether you fit in to any of these scenarios. Simply know that wherever you are coming from and wherever you think you might want to go, you are, right this moment, in the right place. Know that whatever you think your purpose in life or your purpose in reading this book (blog) is, you are, right this moment, in the right place.

Let’s make a pact. Let’s agree that for now our purpose is to be present and willing, right here, right now. To this end, let’s do a simple exercise. Look around you. What does the room you’re in look like? Are there windows? Notice the source of light. What shoes are you wearing? Are you standing or sitting? How’s your breathing? Take three long, deep breaths to put your attention there. Look around you again. Ground yourself in the here and now. Focus on just being where you are, right now, in this moment. Breathe deeply.

This exercise is a simple one, and I will ask you to remember it and turn to it from time to time. Let’s call it your purpose tool. Whenever you find yourself fearful or anxious, use this tool. Whenever the question “What is my purpose?” arises, use this tool. Whenever you are in a state of existential angst, use this tool. Whenever you don’t know what to do next, use this tool

You may be asking yourself such questions as “Why? What good will this do me? How can such a simple exercise help with the important maters of my life?” Take a moment. Stop. Use your purpose tool. If you practice this regularly and follow the other suggestions in this book (blog), I promise that you will find the answers to even your most perplexing questions. But for now let’s agree that our purpose is to be here, on this page, in this moment, and nowhere else. That is enough purpose just now. Read along, trust, and bring this tool with you as you go.

To be continued…

from Just Listen – A Guide to Finding Your Own True Voice

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The Practice of Being Still

We can be moving at a furious pace even when we’re not in motion. This activity is usually our mind working overtime, which can cause stress, distress, anxiety, and health problems. The solution then is simple: Slow down the movement of our mind.IMG_0594

But when our mind continues to move, even after our body is quiet, it can keep us from making the effort to be still, which moves us even further away from a calm mind. Our mind keeps chattering once we’ve stilled our body, because our mind doesn’t want us to be still. When we are still, our mind inevitably slows down and is no longer in charge. But our mind, and most especially our petty ego, wants to be in charge; it is not happy when it’s not, so it does everything in its power to keep us moving. And it usually wins.

So then the question becomes, how do we take charge of our mind? You might also wonder, isn’t my mind me? If I’m not in charge of my own mind, then who or what is? Good questions. Put them aside for a moment and consider this: If you were truly in charge of your mind, wouldn’t you just be able to say to it, calm down, relax, don’t worry, stop thinking so much, and other similar things? Haven’t we all tried such coaxing? Has it ever worked?

So now what? Well, the good news is that there is a way to take charge. Rather than fighting fire with fire, pitting will against will, you can learn another approach to relieve the pressure, quiet your mind, and let go of the need for answers.

What is this miraculous way? What do we use, if not our will, to calm ourselves and become masters of our minds.

Breath—it’s really that simple. Almost too simple for our complicated minds to understand and accept.

It may seem like there must be more to it, but the answer is, not really.

It is simply a matter of concentrating and bringing your attention to your breath. The key concept here is concentration. This is where your indomitable will can be utilized. Draw all of your energy and spirit into each breath, and as you do, draw your breath deeper and deeper into your belly-mind. Each time your mind strays, gently draw it back as you would a windblown scarf, and concentrate with all your might and attention on each inhalation and each exhalation. This is not an easy task. Each time, thoughts and sounds and disappointments will disturb you. But there will come a point when you will experience, for a fraction of a second, such full concentration on your breathing that all thoughts and outside interference will halt. This “space between thoughts” is where your truth resides, where your essence is revealed. Eventually, with practice, these moments will get longer, and you will completely lose yourself in the practice of concentrated breathing, deep in your belly. Then you will know why this practice is so valuable. You will experience contentment as never before, and a deep understanding will prevail. But even before this, when you engage in this concentrated breath practice each day, for fifteen, twenty, forty minutes, a number of things happen:

•Your body slows down.

•Your breath gets deeper.

•Your mind follows and begins to slow down (sometimes kicking and screaming, but eventually giving in peacefully).

•Your heart rate slows.

•Anger, depression, and anxiety abate.

•Pain symptoms relax.

These things occur, plus much more. You have the power to manifest these benefits. So concentrate, keep a positive attitude, and breathe your way to serenity.

As you become more aware of your breath, you will naturally cultivate a spirit of gratitude for your breath, because it equals life. Prior to this breath-attention practice, you most likely took your breath for granted, but do no longer. Once you stop taking your life-source for granted, you will extend this same attitude to all other things and people and circumstances. You might have to remind yourself now and then, but if you keep up the breath-awareness practice, then the practice of gratitude will automatically follow.

(from Serenity in Motion)

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Mindful Quotes for September

September always feels like a new beginning, a slightly larger and grander new beginning than the one I experience each time I sit on my meditation cushion. But that’s just my history. I now take each day, no matter the season, as a new beginning. Just back from a month in the Vermont countryside, I sit today with the rhythm of the city as the backdrop and enjoy that beat. No matter where my body rests, there I am.

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Meditation is one of the most serious things. You can do it all day, in the office, with the family, when you say to somebody, “I love you,” when you are considering your children…. Meditation is part of life, not something different from life.
J. Krishnamurti

If we are not in control of ourselves but instead let our impatience or anger interfere, then our work is no longer of any value. Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves.
Thich Nhat Hahn

You should rather be grateful for the weeds you have in your mind, because eventually they will enrich your practice.
Shunryu Suzuki

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
Lao Tzu

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Off the Grid

This will be my last blog until September. Gulp. And I’ll not be posting on FB or Twitter either. Another gulp. Unless the spirit moves me, and even then it’ll be just for fun.

As a self-employed writer and teacher it’s not easy to stop paying attention to work. My work is my life and my life is my work and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Even so, it is important to unplug for a while. And that is what I plan to do for the next few weeks.

I hope you all get to detach from your usual life for a bit this summer so we can all return refreshed and with a new perspective. Have a happy end of summer and see you all in September.

Valley Trail

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