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Posts tagged ‘bliss’

How to be Happy

I sometimes talk about Oxytocin in the class and the various activities we can engage with to produce it. Known as the love hormone or cuddle chemical it is quite self suggestive for how it is primarily produced – touch, loving contact, sex, and a deep feeling of connection to another.  It can also come from self touch, giving yourself a massage to have a sense of loving contact, given that we don’t always have others around who will give us a hug! I was thinking about this during the week as I have to apply a moisturiser after showering due to dermatitis. I can easily see this as a task to be got through before I can on with the day. But instead, this week I’ve seen it as an opportunity to slow down and give some affection to my body, having a sense of care as I apply it and enjoying the experience as a five minute massage rather than a chore.  What parts of your day do you rush through that might be more nourishing? Could your morning shower be a time to slow down and enjoy the touch of water and feel of applying the soap? Could you take longer to enjoy your first cup of tea or coffee rather than gulp it down and get on with work?

How might you nourish yourself through becoming more present in the everyday activities you already perform?

Enjoy the everyday: Perhaps your walk to to work could become a time for quiet reflection. I goto a school twice a week to volunteer as a reading assistant. I have two routes to go from the station to the school.  One is slightly longer and goes through Battersea park, whilst the other is along a main road. In the morning I need to get to the school directly so walk along the road, but after the session I have a choice.  Its been interesting to see how often my mind is in busy mode wanting to get straight home to get on with a task. But taking the extra ten minutes to walk through the park has such an impact on my sense of well-being and happiness it is worth being ten minutes latter home! One person I know found he could enjoy hanging his washing out on the line rather than see it as a chore…and in doing so nourished himself through being more open to his senses – the smell of fresh laundry, the feel of the sun on his skin, the sound of birds singing….

This principe of how we view our time is outlined in a story I read: a Buddhist teacher was collected by his disciple at an airport. The disciple asked if he wanted to go the fast or scenic route home. The teacher replied “fast”. On arriving at the home where they were staying the dispel rushed in to get on with arrangements. The teacher stopped him and asked “what are we going to do to enjoy the time we just saved?” How much of our life is spent hurrying taking the fast route, but never stopping to enjoy the time we have saved!!

Kindness Diary: Kindness has been found to be an excellent way of boosting oxytocin and a sense of well-being.  In one study a group of women were asked to write down every act of kindness they performed each day for a week.  But the end of the week their answers to a stress test showed they were 50% less stressed than at the start of the week. You don’t need to deliberately think of kind acts to perform, but simply bring conscious awareness to the kind acts you are already performing but overlook.

Gratitude diary: write down one or more things you feel grateful for from the day.  It can be very simple things, but noting them starts to orientate the mind to a sense of being nourished rather than a sense of lack.

Find exercise you enjoy: Exercise releases endorphins….but only if you have enjoyed it and felt it was effective.  Grinding out a few laps of the park or dragging yourself to the gym won’t release endorphins.  But doing it because you enjoy it or finding an activity you enjoy  will.

Volunteer: I’m volunteering twice a week as a reading assistant in a school. I work with the same three children over one year, seeing them each for 1/2 an hour twice a week. It’s a delight to see how they are engaging with the reading and enjoying the time we spend together.  And I am feeling happier as a result. Volunteering has been found to boost well-being and happiness. We are social beings and there is something powerful in knowing you are doing something for the well being of the community of which you are a part, doing it from your heart rather than for any financial benefit.

Meditate: the Loving Kindness practice will have an impact on your sense of well being if done regularly. The mind does not distinguish between what is happening and thoughts of an event.  Sitting and wishing a friend well and feeling happy for them will be as if you are with them and enjoying their company. The heart will feel warm and beneficial hormones will be produced in the brain associated with feelings of happiness and love. Whilst the mindfulness practice will help the body to regulate itself and switch off the stress mode of fight/flight or freeze and go into the relaxation response. The relaxation response is a highly beneficial state, where the body can rest, repair and rejuvenate. All it takes is ten minutes a day to start to have the life enhancing benefits of a daily meditation practice.

What’s yours? As well as these you may have other activities that nourish you and make you happy – a hobby, reading, gardening, mountain climbing, telephoning a friend, painting…..what activities can you think of that you might incorporate more into your life to bring a greater sense of well being and joy? How would you like to start your year?


Opening to Joy – The Path to Awakening

Buddhism is often accused of being pessimistic due to the focus on suffering as the entry to the path of self knowing. It´s cettainly true that what attacted me at the beguining was this acknowlegement that there was suffering. And for a long time that was my focus – how to be free from suffering through the freedom of Enlightnement. But in doing this I forgot what the Buddha also taught, which was that joy is here right now when we relax into the present moment. This weekend I am visiting a Cuban friend who lives in Hamburg and on the flight over was reading Thich Nhat Hahh´s book Breathe You Are Alive which is a reflection of the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness. In this the Buddh talks about how as we bring our attetion to the body, feelings and thoughts and attend to the experience of the breath in our body we open to a deep joy. It is this joy that then supports the arising of insight and wisdom.

As I sit here using my friend´s computer there is Cuban music playing as he dances whilst he cooks. Listening to the music there is a feeling of joy that is uplifitng. And I´m struck that it was this quality that the Buddha spoke of as being part of the path to awakening. Not serious, introspective and severe reflection – but a lightening and opening through joy, bliss and rapture.

When I was ordained into the monastic tradition my name was Bodhinando, which translates as The Bliss of Awakening. There wasn´t much bliss in the person I was at that time! I was intense, serious and felt little joy. And I took the name as being a pointer and a challenge from my Abbot. That what needed to open in me was a heart full of  joy and bliss as exemplified by the founder of the lineage I was training in, Ajahn Chah.



Welcoming is welcoming – not a clever way of fixing

How to rest into this state? One approach is exemplified in the teaching of opening to difficult emotions with a sense of curiosity. So often I can get lost in fighting these or looking for a way of escaping them. The mindfulness approach I learnt in the monastery was a patient allowing, a turning towards what is difficult, feeling it and knowing it. As Ajahan Sumedho, my Abbot, used to say “that which knows sadness is not sad”. Awareness of an emotion is simply awareness – it is not the emotion. It is like the sky knowing the clouds – it holds them, sees them for what they are but is never itself a cloud. This approach was highlighted by the being with difficulty meditation I learnt to teach as part of the 8 week MBCT course and a method of turning towards the difficult emotions I read in The Happiness Trap, an introduction to ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: to accept what is out of your personal control, while committing to action that will improve your quality of life) by Dr Russ Harris. In this he has a detailed meditation on how to turn towards difficulty by feeling it as the sensations in your body rather than as a thought, and then breathing into those sensations.

To listen to a version of this click here

The difficult emotions may then dissolve away, or they may not. The intention of welcoming them in is not that in so doing they will immediately fade away, otherwise welcoming would just be a more subtle part of the fixing agenda. They are welcomed because they are welcomed. They are what is here in this moment and this moment is as it is. To think it should be any other way is to say how it is right now is not the true me, not how life should be and is a mistake, and that at some future point in time when I no longer feel this I will then be who I should be and life will be as it is supposed to be.  In that way one could spend half of one’s life feeling that it is not one’s real life but a mistake, waiting for the real life to begin.

Letting go of preferences, letting go of wanting life to be like the happy advert we carry in our head of the perfect life, we can start to be with the life we have. And as I bring this compassionate embrace to my struggle, my pain and sorrow, then I start to feel a peace that is not dependent on feeling good. It’s a peace that is simply there, holding the struggle, blossoming in times of joy but not dependant on good fortune to exist. It is something we all know.  We have tasted it in those moments of allowing. We were much more familiar with it as children and it is something we now need to remember but once remembered feels familiar. And it is easy to forget, but the more often we wake up to it again the more it starts to be the default mode.


Shifting from the Doing Mode to the Being Mode, from solutions to acceptance

This aspect of mindfulness may be described as acceptance and equanimity. It is the process of shifting from the Doing Mode that looks for solutions and answers – ‘’why am I anxious’’, ‘’what’s wrong with me’’, ‘’how do I stop this’’ – to the Being Mode that observes without judgement or fear. It is not acquiescence, detachment or dissociation but a wholehearted embracing of the present moment exactly as it is, noticing the thought that it should be different and then embracing this thought as well. This doesn’t mean that if we are ill, for example, we give up on the thought of being healthy. Instead of reacting to being ill with worry or anger and raging against it as we long for health at some point in the future we have an opportunity to become fully present to the experiences arising as a result of being ill: the physical and  emotional pain – the sadness, the wanting it to be different, the grief at lost time or opportunities. We then have an opportunity to embrace all of this in the present moment, whilst taking loving action for our own well-being.  As we accept things as they are this may open the mind to choices for healing that would have been lost sight of if one were only intent on getting away from the discomfort. In this way one dives into the heart of the difficult experience and may find a peace that was never touched by the illness that can then nourish one in the suffering of physical pain.

The more I trust this the more there is a feeling that whatever is here right now can be held. And in that way there is a deeper sense of contentment and peace. I hope that this encourages you to explore this in your own life and that the talk below from Jeff Foster gives you a feeling for this approach.



Compassion and the loving heart

This week we turn to the second of the Divine Abiding meditations, compassion: the heart’s response to suffering.

Compassion (Karuna)

Here one opens the heart to its capacity to be with suffering (one’s own and others) rather than run from it or sentimentalise and feel pity. It is the wish for others to be free from suffering whilst also acknowledging that for some there is suffering and to be able to be with that and wish them well. 

Each divine abiding meditation starts by connecting to loving kindness and then bringing this loving kindness into contact with a person who represent the emotion to be evoked. In this practice we turn our attention of our heart to someone we know who is suffering. This is not in order to feel sad or distressed by their suffering but to allow a gentle well-wishing to arise in our heart for them as we wish them to be free from suffering and to find whatever support and nurture they need in order to help with this. We are feeling with them, not feeling sorry for them.

The near and far enemy of compassion:

Far enemy: cruelty

Near enemy: pity – feeling superior and looking down on one who is suffering rather than feeling with them and seeing that their and one’s own suffering are of the same nature.

As the song goes, “into each life some rain must fall”. This meditation is a gentle acknowledgement that there is suffering in this world and gives a means of staying present to it. It can be especially helpful as a way of staying present to our own suffering when it arises. Rather than feeling we are failing when we experience sadness or emotional pain this practice gives us permission to feel and embrace what is there, even if it is difficult. We trust that there is a love within us that can hold whatever difficulty is there.

Jeff Foster gives beautiful expression to this in one of his reflections:

Your sadness doesn’t say, “Please fix me, heal me, or release me”. It doesn’t say, “Please get rid of me, numb yourself to me, pretend I’m not here”. It certainly doesn’t say, “Please get enlightened so I can die!”.

Sadness does not come to punish you, or reveal to you what a ‘spiritual failure’ you are. Sadness is not a sign that you are unevolved or far from healing, awakening, enlightenment, even peace. The presence of sadness is not an indication that you’ve done something wrong. 

Sadness only whispers, “May I come in? I am tired, I long for rest”. And you reply, “But sadness, I don’t know how to allow you in!”
And sadness replies, “It’s okay. You don’t need to know. I’m already in”.
And we bow to sadness then, we recognise how it’s already allowed in, how there’s enough room in us for sadness, how we are not ‘the sad one’, not contained within sadness, but the room for sadness, its space, its home, its salvation, its loving embrace; not as a goal, but as our nature – consciousness itself, already free.

Don’t heal yourself from sadness; let sadness heal you. Let it show you the way when you have forgotten. Let it reveal to you the mysteries of love. Let it remind you of your vast heart, your refusal to split off from any part of your ancient Self, that bigger Happiness you danced when you were young.

Your pain, your sorrow, your doubts, your longings,
your fearful thoughts: they are not mistakes,
and they aren’t asking to be ‘healed’.
They are asking to be held. Here, now, lightly,
In the loving, healing arms of present awareness…

Jeff Foster

In this week’s class we’ll explore how to rest into this sense of the vast love that simply is, and how from that place we can hold our own and others sadness or pain without feeling we have to fix it or fearing being overwhelmed by it. Many of us will have had experiences as we were growing up that gave rise to trauma of some sort. For me this was around my birth and early years.

When I was born my mother was sedated and remained so for 24 hours after my birth, during which time I was in an incubator.  Then she followed the advice of the 1970s of leaving the baby to cry without attending to them so that they would learn that crying would not bring attention.  For me this meant being left in the pram at the end of the garden! Last weekend I was on a retreat where I had a physical memory of how this felt.  The coldness, the desperate wish to be touched, and the feeling of having abandoned hope, of surrendering to the sense of having been abandoned. Then I felt the warmth of lying on my mother, of feeding and feeling safe. As the retreat went on I also felt the pain of feeling abandoned by my father and I realised that these things although distant in time are actually right here, right now in my body. They influence how I think and feel and act. The little me that looks out so desperately for touch and love that I scare away any man who this little self sees as being the one to give me this by being too demanding and instantaneous in his affections and desire for love! The confusion of wanting intimacy and love but fearing it due to the experience of my mother being both there and totally absent. Relationship became an ambivalent place of both warmth and abandonment.

I’m starting to explore how to hold this younger self and his pain and fear with compassion and in this Mondays class I’ll be exploring with you how we can hold what is there with love rather than try to fix it or make it go away. This is still work in progress for me, something I’m exploring since my retreat so I can’t offer answers, but can share the process. What I was left with from the retreat was what I’ll finish with here.  Beneath and around and before and after all of the pain of this self I call Nick, all of the thoughts and mental activity,  is a vast love that simply is. It was a beautiful experience of bliss and total love that is there ready to hold whatever pain there is: but this requires us to dive into our pain and embrace it rather than fight it.

Humour and the spiritual life

In my last post I was reflecting on the phrase ‘follow your bliss’ and how humour and joy are part of  what supports us in our practice. Someone sent me a link to a video recently which made me laugh a lot. I’m reminded how important humour is and how easily in the ‘spiritual life’ one can take on a rather serious demeanour.

A friend of mine is a Sufi and leads laughter workshops. He’s always so happy! And if I think about it the people I know who seem most deeply connected to their practice are also the happiest people I know. My Abbot Ajahn Sumedho would always have a smile and a laugh bubbling not far beneath the surface, likewise other friends in the monastery both monk and lay practitioners. A friend of mine said to me recently he wonders if I need to laugh more. He has a point that my first Abbot who gave me my monastic name might agree with! My monastic name was Bodhinando – the Bliss of Awakening/Enlightenment. I always took it as a reminder that with liberation comes bliss – not a dull annihilation. So perhaps opening to joy and bliss now is a little window into the bliss of perfect freedom.

The video below is great in that it is both a spoof of a spiritual delivery and message and yet also works as a meditation! It’s a great reminder how not to take the rituals and routines of spiritual teachings too seriously. And perhaps at times such humour and language might even be more effective than ‘spiritual’ instructions! If you are offended by mild swearing do not watch!


Follow your bliss – keeping new year resolutions by finding what draws the heart to enjoying that new way of being

I remember reading the phrase “follow your bliss” at one time and it has stuck with me ever since.  My Buddhist name is Bodhinando, which means the bliss of awakening, so I guess my teacher was trying to tell me something! I always had a tendency to be a bit serious and dedicated…….his choice of name pointed to freedom being a state of playful bliss rather than earnest endeavour!

I often think of the phrase “follow your bliss”, especially at New Year. As we make resolutions and start the year there can be a sense of earnestly trying to make good those sincere and dutiful resolutions.  But where is the bliss?  Where is there the sense of being drawn to an action that makes the heart quiver with joy rather than a dull sense of having to do the right thing? We may have very worthy goals: stop smoking, go to the gym, get fit and go to mindfulness classes! But if these are done with a sense of dull duty there is little to draw the heart to them with a quiver of excitement.  Instead they hang heavy on us, in the same way as the childhood duty of writing letters of thanks to distant relatives after Christmas was a chore rather than a delight!

With each of your goals for 2016 consider what is the joy that is contained in them if you were to achieve the goal?  Rather than the negating of an action – stopping smoking – what is there that you feel drawn towards, excited by, that gives a sense of vitality and aliveness? Feeling healthier, waking up feeling fresh and alert, feeling your body cleansing itself of toxins? Find your own sense of bliss in whatever it is you have resolved to do and follow that, rather than simply negate an action that you feel is bad for you.

For Campbell this idea of following your bliss was central to a happy life.  What is it that gives you a sense of joy and excitement and how might you make that the hub of your life? For him it was the joy of exploring mythology and philosophy.  For others it could be the pleasure of creating something with their hands – an artist, crafts man or builder, or the pleasure of following a dream. A friend of mine once said that those who are happiest in life tend to be doing work as an adult which they enjoyed as a child.  He is a garden designer, and gardening was his passion as a boy.  He followed his bliss and made it his career.  For others it might not be work, but a hobby or volunteering role that connects them to their bliss.  As you enter 2016 perhaps take a moment to consider what did you enjoy doing as a child?  Have you become separated from following that spontaneous bliss that the child found easy to connect with and how might you bring back a connection to that now?

I’ve included a video of Campbell being interviewed below in which he says more about the idea of following your bliss.  Below is a short extract from the interview:

“If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track
that has been there all the while waiting for you
and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.

When you can see that, you begin to meet people
who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you.
I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid,
and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else”

To see the video click here

Habit 3: Feed your passions and talents

It can be easy to get into a mode where one feels more as if one is enduring life rather than enjoying it as an adventure: work,commitments, chores, the drudgery of life all seem to have taken the place of that joy one felt as a child to explore, learn, and find ways to experience one’s passions.
It’s said the people who are happiest are those who turned what they loved doing as a child into the work they now do. I know a few people who have done this: a garden designer who looked after the school greenhouse and a drama teacher who used to make puppet shows as a child.  I used to stand in my garden at nights a 10 year old looking at the stars wondering if I would ever understand the mystery that seemed all around in the dark of the night and the enormity of space. This was the early impulse towards my later explorations of Buddhism through community living and monastic training and my work now. Not all of us necessarily carry a passion from childhood into our adult career but thinking back though we can remember what it was like to have something we loved doing that we could spend the day or even the holidays absorbed in. What hobby did you once enjoy that you may have forgotten to give time to?
One of the ways we can deal with a busy work life is to start cutting out the things that seem extraneous in the hope that if we focus on the task and get it done we can then return later to our other leisure activities.  But the result is that we can start to live a life where there is little that is nourishing and our focus gets pulled increasingly towards work deadlines and commitments, just as  a black hole sucks in everything in its grasp.
When reflecting on this we can start to look at ways to bring these nourishing activities back into our life. What did we once find enjoyable that we may no longer do? When I think of my childhood and teens there were many such things: reading, going on long walks and cycle rides with my step sister or paddling in the river and making a dam, spending the day in a boat on the river or with a friend tidying the church yard and talking about life, the universe and everything or singing in the chorus of the village Gilbert and Sullivan society! I used to get so much pleasure from what I called my museum, which was a collection of pottery shards, pipes and old bottles I found on walks and going to the young archeologists club in Cambridge. When I compare this to my life now I realise how busy it has become and how much less time there seems!
This lack of time for things is partly the change from being a child to an adult: I now have to shop, buy food, have meetings, work etc.  But how can one reconnect with that ability one once had to make time for the simple things, the things that give joy and are not just about surviving? Some of you may still do this naturally, making time to go to choirs, or clubs that relate to interests you have; going out for walks or to talks and debates or concerts or films, having a hobby and enjoying making time for it. But for those of us who may not be doing this, as we enter 2015 this may be a time to look back at what we once found pleasure doing and ask how we can make time for this, in a simple way, every day. This might be a case of changing our routine – walking home through the park rather than rushing to get home to do some tasks or other activities that don’t in themselves give any sense of fulfilment. Or taking a book with us to read on the tube rather than the free paper; starting to carry a sketch book with us again as we may have done when studying art and feeding that joy even if we didn’t turn out to be the next big ground shaking artist! Or giving an evening a week to attend a club or activity we once enjoyed.
To start this process think back to your childhood and teens.  What were your joys, passions and talents. What did you want to be doing? And how might you connect with this now as an adult? Consider also what you are doing in your life now. Can you see that your work or other activities does in fact give expression to following a passion although it may have started to seem like a chore?  And if so how can you reconnect with the passion and feel that joy to be doing something you value?
We’ll reflect on this after the tea break this Monday and there will be a chance to explore it in the Loving Kindness practice. The following give some useful pointers for reflection on this topic.
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