Sunday, May 7, 2017

My Morning Practice


(Spoiler alert: it’s not just meditation.)

Each morning, I sit in front of my altar and go through a sequence of practices, each of them important to helping my mind and body prepare for the day. I got into the habit of morning practice while on retreat at the Nyingma Institute for Tibetan Buddhism, and I’ve been doing my own morning practice in the four months since graduating. I’m able to keep up the practice only because I can so clearly see the difference on days that I don’t manage to do it.

I am sharing my morning practice because I want to encourage others to experiment with their own morning practice, to consider what practices can help you feel the most balanced and open as you enter the day.

The Setup: My Altar


I’m happy that I went through the effort to create an altar area in my bedroom, as the visual reminder helps me establish and continue my practice. My altar is filled with imagery that inspires me: a Buddha statue in the center of a sand-filled star, lit up by a glowing candle, surrounded by sea shells from local beaches. My altar also has photos and statues gifted from friends, and handmade engravings of the Buddhist compassion prayer.



If you have the time and space to create an altar, let it be one that inspires you — whether that’s shiny stones, spiritual figures, photos of friends, or doodads collected over your lifetime. That important part is that it gives you a sense of beauty and balance.

At the foot of my altar, I always have a meditation cushion, a blanket, a lighter, and a tissue box.

The Prerequisite: Waking Up Early


I find it far easier to do my morning practice in the early morning before my roommates have awakened. I tried many times to do it during the hustle-bustle of the morning rush, and I just can’t relax enough when I have the niggling worry that they might need me for something.
Setting my Intention

I start off with reciting my personal intention statement, three times. I recite the same intention each day, and it reminds me of what I strive for in my interactions with others:
“I intend to be warm, friendly, open and loving, while honoring my interests and respecting my boundaries.”

Sitting Meditation


I sit in the Tibetan style, my eyes partially open with a soft gaze towards my altar. I count my breath each time I exhale, counting 10 exhales before I start back at 1. For each cycle of 10 breaths, I shift my gaze to a different sea shell on my altar. On my 7th cycle, my gaze will rest on the center seashell with the candle light gleaming through it, and that is how I know I am done.

Often, the goal of meditation is to focus on a single object, just the breath or just a particular object. In my meditation, I focus on multiple objects at once, because it is the way that I can pay the most attention to what is happening in my mind without it wandering completely away. It works well for my purposes.


“Cleansing Breath”


This is a highly beneficial practice from Kum Nye Tibetan Yoga that helps me acknowledge my aversions, attractions, and ignorance.

With tissue in hand, I first think of something I’m averse to or afraid of (like an awkward conversation or a tricky task), place one finger on my right nostril, inhale, and then blow out through my left nostril. Then I do that for 2 more things I’m averse to, 3 times on the other nostril for things I’m desiring, and 3 times from both nostrils for things I’m uncertain about.



It may sound weird, but hey, this one weird trick — it works! When I fully acknowledge the things that are gripping me — whether it’s a grip of desire or disgust — I am less under their control. I can detach myself from them. When I acknowledge the things I’m unsure of, I find I don’t put so much energy into defending myself, both internally and to others. I can just say “Actually, I don’t know!” and be okay with it.

If you’re interested in practicing Cleansing Breath, I recommend reading the full description in Tarthang Thulku’s Kum Nye book. You could also try journaling the 9 attractions, aversions, and ignorances.


Neck Stretches


This is where my practice gets physical, and is inspired by both Kum Nye and Mask Theater class warm-up. I basically stretch my throat and neck in a mindful manner. In Kum Nye, it’s considered important in opening the channel from the head to the heart chakras. In Mask, it’s important to enable our characters to express themselves fully.

First I rotate the neck in 4 axis: top to bottom, left-ear-to-shoulder to right-ear-to-shoulder, and left to right. Each time I rotate, I notice a new thing that my eyes have rested on, to increase my mindfulness.



Then I do a slow neck roll, 3 times in one direction, then 3 times in the other direction. If any part feels particularly “juicy” or “crunchy”, I spend a little more time there. This is similar to the Kum Nye practice “Lightning thoughts”, where your neck roll is as slow as possible and you observe the thoughts popping up.



“Bending in the Four Directions”


Now I’m well prepared to get up on my feet and bend my entire body! This next practice is also from Kum Nye Tibetan Yoga and a great example of its power. When you do Kum Nye poses, you go through them very slowly and often hold them for many minutes. That way you can take the time to truly experience the sensations happening, and even try to develop a friendly relationship with sensations you may label as uncomfortable or painful. Kum Nye gives you the time to develop mindfulness around your bodily sensations, and can prepare you for more mindfulness in the “real world”.

In this practice, I slowly raise my arms up to the ceiling and bend to the left. I count for 21 breaths, and return to the center.

Then I bend to the right for 21 breaths. If I feel myself getting distracted, I challenge myself to bend further. I return to the center and stretch upwards.



Now my favorite/most dreaded part. I bend forward from the waist until my arms are parallel with the floor. I reach my arms forward while jutting my hips back, and count for 21 breaths. The concentration needed to hold the pose is often strong enough to clear my mind of distraction.

From the bent forward position, I bend my knees and swing my arms up to center. I stretch backwards slightly, staring at the corner where the ceiling meets the wall, counting for 21 breaths.



I return my hands to center and slowly lower them, noticing the sensations going through my hands, arms, and body.


The Compassion Prayer


This prayer comes from the Four Immeasurables in Buddhism, and there are many variants of it. I recite this version three times:
May all beings be free from suffering
May all beings be free from fear and anger
May all beings find peace and joy
May all beings have a mind at ease


Closing Gesture


We always close sessions at the Nyingma Institute with either a closing gesture or closing chant, where we dedicate the merit of our practice to all the beings that may benefit from it. While I go through the gesture, I think of my roommates, colleagues, neighbors, locals, and then imagine extending it to everyone in the state, country, and world.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What is the difference between ambition and discontent?


I am honestly trying to figure this out right now.

“Ambition” is defined as “desire and determination to achieve success.”.

“Discontent” is defined as “dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances”.

Is it possible for one to desire to achieve success, if they are not dissatisfied with their circumstances?

Or, to bring this out of abstract realm and put my skin in the game: is it possible for me to desire to achieve success, without a dissatisfaction with my circumstances?

It seems theoretically possible. I could think “Well, things are alright right now and I’ll be content if they stay this way, but it’d probably be better if I was able to improve this thing, so I’ll try that out.”

Sometimes I do have that mindset. But after I put thingX on my TODO list and the fantasy of finishing thingX taunts me, my mindset soon turns to “Gosh, I just won’t be satisfied until I improve this thing! And look at all these other people and things taking up my time, preventing me from getting thingX done! I really really want to get it done!”

My preference for achievement turns into a desire, and that desire turns into an obsession, and that obsession turns into anxiety.

Why does preference turn into desire? Why can’t I avoid discontenment?

Let’s take a tangent into etymology land, to see what it yields.

The word “content” comes from Latin contentus, meaning “contained, satisfied”, as in “their desires are bound by what he or she already has.” Thus, the state of discontent is when your desires reach outside what you already have. You must achieve that thing outside of you in order to become content again, and hope that you can keep that thing inside your bounds.

The word “ambition” comes from Latin ambitionem, meaning “a going around”, as in the act of going around to solicit votes — “a striving for favor, courting, flattery; a desire for honor, thirst for popularity”. Apparently in its early uses, ambition was always used pejoratively, and the positive sense is only from modern times.

I must say, that was a very interesting detour. So much is contained within the etymology of those two words.

The original meaning of ambition is certainly one that’s bound to end in discontentment. If my desire to achieve things is literally to become popular, then the bounds of my desires are reaching far outside myself — to a possibly infinite extent. Once I’ve gained the favor of 100, why wouldn’t I want to gain the favor of 1,000? I cannot be content — I cannot be self-contained — if my desires depend on the votes of others.

But we could argue that the new meaning of ambition is a different one, and that you can have a desire to achieve success not because you personally need the good favor, but because you recognize a problem in the world and you see that you have the capabilities to fix it. That seems reasonable.

Now let’s go into a Buddhist critique (from an amateur).

Desire is suffering. Desire is a form of attachment. Attachments are dangerous because of how strongly they stick to the mind. They make it hard to see truth, they make it hard for the mind to be free and open to all the possibilities of the world, they constrain the limits of the self.

Desire can be contrasted with preference. You are attached to your desires, you are not attached to your preferences. If the world changes such that you can’t follow your preferences, you can just go with the flow.

What if ambition could be a “preference to achieve success”? What if I could prefer to achieve thingX, but not be bothered if it can’t happen for some reason? That does seem nice, as it’d mean never spiraling from desire to obsession to anxiety.

The risk to it is that, in actuality, I might be able to achieve thingX, but I let some other false belief get in the way of that achievement (like a subconscious belief that I’m not capable). If I am not driven by mad desire, then I may miss out on potential personal growth.

That means that I must be very honest with myself. I have to admit everything that affects my ability to achieve thingX, and question how real those obstacles are. I also have to admit when I no longer think it’s useful to achieve thingX. Finally, I have to admit when a preference has turned into a desire, and when that attachment has clouded my other admissions.

It sounds hard, especially when desire is the standard modus operandi. But I do think it may be possible, to cultivate a form of ambition that is compatible with a sense of contentment.

Thinking through this has been most helpful. Thank you for reading.

Monday, April 17, 2017

I stopped listening to music

…And I didn’t miss it.

I spent the fall on a 4-month retreat at a Buddhist institute in Berkeley. We did a lot during that retreat — meditating, Tibetan yoga, group discussions, work practice — but music wasn’t an integral part. The closest we came was our daily chanting and one workshop on mindful listening.

I wouldn’t actually notice the lack of music until I came back into the real world for visits each Sunday. Then, when a song came on, I would really hear it. I’d often find myself dancing or singing along to it. My body and mind found it such an entertaining novelty.

There were after-effects, though. Song lyrics would stick in my head and stay for days, pulsing through my head as soon as I woke up. My mind would try to understand the lyrics, to figure out what they meant for my life and how their values should be applied. I didn’t mind that for a few songs where the lyrics cohered with the rest of my life, but for many pop songs, that was very much not the case. Pop song lyrics are based on romantic fantasies, oversimplified idealized worlds that rarely exist. It doesn’t serve my mind well to hold my own life up to the expectations of pop song worlds.

I became more careful about what songs I exposed my mind to. When my partner made playlists for our housework, I asked him to prefer songs without lyrics. If I got cravings to dance, I put on beautiful instrumental music or simply danced without music.

Now that the retreat is over, songs are actually a big part of my life — but they are songs that I am singing to myself. They’re either made up songs, like lyrics about hungry cats set to the Muppets Blue Danube, or they’re songs from my childhood, like the entire Lion King soundtrack.

As it turns out, my mind already has enough songs to keep it entertained for this lifetime. I am certainly open to hearing new songs, but I will no longer go through effort to go out and find them.

If you’re curious about how music affects your mind, try spending two weeks without any or just two weeks with non-lyrical musical. Notice how your mind feels, and notice how it feels when you bring it back into your life.

Regardless of how your mind responds, it is an interesting experiment to try and you will learn something about your mind and music.

Enjoy the silence! :)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Avoiding concept overload on the BART

Lately I’m very interested in how I can reduce the number of “concepts” my mind encounters each day, particularly nonessential, value-laden concepts. My interest started when we were challenged to spend two weeks of a Buddhist retreat in “non-conceptual silence.” I enjoyed the effect of that on my mind so much that I continued the challenge in my post-retreat life.

I find that the BART commute is particularly challenging, as it involves walking past many billboards and advertisements, plus it’s a tempting time to use my phone to wander mindlessly around the internets, bumping into concepts at every turn.

You see, when my mind latches onto concepts, it can swirl around them for hours, even (and especially) those it can’t do anything about. For example, there’s a series of ads at Powell Station that make fun of “dreamers” in order to elevate “doers,” in the name of promoting a freelancing startup. When I see those ads, my mind goes into a critical mode of deciding if I agree with the value judgments of the ads, weighing arguments on both sides. My mind then remains judgmental for a time after that, leaking that state of mind into unrelated social interactions and work discussions.

I have seen how much my critical state of mind is correlated with negative judgments of myself and others, so I aim to avoid entering that state of mind unless I am in an actionable situation. One way I can do that is by steering my life to detour around all the nonessential, value-laden concepts.

Thus, I present my strategy for enjoying the BART with minimal concepts.

Walk with wide angle vision

We were taught wide angle vision multiple times during the retreat, and it is still one of my favorite tools. Basically, we have two kinds of vision: acute vision and wide angle vision. In acute vision, our eyes focus on a point, then focus on the next point, etc. In wide angle vision, our eyes aren’t focused on a particular point and see more on the periphery.

You can get your eyes into wide angle vision by raising your hands up in front of you, then moving them to each side while watching both of them with both your eyes. Your vision will have to become wide angle to be able to see both at once.

Then practice walking around like that and notice how it feels. When I use wide angle vision outside, I actually notice that the trees bounce in my vision in a different way than before — that’s how I know that I’ve properly employed wide angle vision.

What does this matter? Interestingly, when my eyes are in wide angle, it seems to bring my mind into wide angle as well. Before, my eyes would jump to things in the scenery- an aggravating sign, a decrepit building, and my mind would circle around those things, trying to figure out how to fix them. In the Mission neighborhood, there’s a lot that could use cleaning and fixing, and it’s hard to convince my mind that it can’t do it all itself. In wide angle, my mind sees the big picture. It doesn’t mean that I’m oblivious to what’s in my scenery, but it does mean that I don’t fixate.

Journey to the land of no billboards

When I’m waiting for the BART, there are usually ads opposite the platform, big billboards with screaming fonts. I discovered that BART doesn’t install advertisements at the ends of the tunnel, where the final cars open their doors. Now I always walk to the ends (as long as I’m catching a long enough train) so that I can enjoy staring at the texture of the wall instead. ☺



Catch the breeze of incoming trains

I adore the feeling of wind against my face, like when biking down a hill. Did you know that you can get that for free at BART stations? When a train is about to come in, just position yourself near the tunnel entrance they’ll emerge from, and then face that entrance. Enjoy the whoosh!

Play the consonant game with posters

A voice coach once taught me this technique for improving articulation: go through a piece of text and clearly pronounce only the consonants in each word, then go through the text and speak it normally. I practiced it during BART rides to my voice lessons and discovered that I really enjoy doing it.

Now I do it on the BART when I find myself standing in front of the emergency instructions posters. They have such a delightful array of consonants, and so far, nobody’s called me out for my strange mouthing in front of them! ☺

Meditate the minutes away

When I’m on the verge of busting out my phone or getting lost in thoughts, I meditate instead (on my good days). I do Tibetan-style meditation with half-open eyes, which is convenient for keeping track of BART stops and admiring the texture of BART seat cushions. ☺ I typically count breaths, up to 21. I may also count cycles of counting breaths, so that I can challenge myself to do 7 cycles of 21. If I have my prayer beads with me, then I also have the option to do a cycle of chanting.

What do you do?

Let me know if you try any of these out or if you have any techniques you’d like to share for enjoying your train ride.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Drying out my thought loops

They say that 90% of our thoughts are repetitive. Actually, I don’t know who “they” is, but I say that 90% of my thoughts are repetitive.

The first time I have a thought, it may be quite nice. It might be a new idea or a pleasant feeling of gratitude. It can also be not so nice, like regret over the way I’ve worded something or dread of some upcoming event.

Both of those kind of thoughts repeat, the pleasant and the unpleasant. For me, the idea thoughts are the most persistent. My brain simply adores figuring things out, and when there’s a new idea that’s not completely fleshed out, it desperately wants to fill in all the details. It will even write the code for a program in my head. And when there’s some aspect it can’t figure out, like for something beyond my current skills, it will go at it even harder. For days, weeks, months.

At first, the idea thoughts are pleasant. But as my brain hammers on them, they become tiring. Why won’t my mind let go of them?? I often imagine taking a (metaphorical) drill to my head and just emptying them out. I even painted that one day:

painting of drill to head

It’s hard for my brain to convince my brain not to figure things out. It’s been doing it for 30+ years now, it’s gotten quite good at it, and the skill has gotten it many places. In the competition to be the best neurons in my brain, the figure-it-out neurons have been winning for a long time.

But now I’m on to them. Now I’ve seen that they’ve taken control of my brain, and that they simply have too much control. I’ve got a plan. I’m drying them out. I can’t prevent the thoughts from starting up in my head, but I can prevent them from going on for many minutes. I can interrupt their flow.

My technique of choice: continuous chanting. It’s been a few months since I graduated from a 4 month Human Development Training retreat, and I’ve been chanting ever since, every day, all day, for as long as my roommates can take it. Sometimes that chanting turns into singing silly songs to myself; sometimes it turns into nonsense poetry. But the technique works just the same. You see, during that retreat, I discovered that my mind has multiple tracks. Even during continuous chanting, my mind can keep thoughts going on another track. But at least with chanting, those thoughts can’t go as far, since they don’t have as much time/space as before. There’s also increased awareness of how far they’ve gone, likely due to the cognitive overhead involved in keeping them going. Here, a technical diagram:

Some thought loops are very strong, trying to scream louder than the chant track. When that happens, it’s sometimes because a thought actually needs to be processed. I start with the most lightweight processing I can do, scribbling it on a piece of paper. If the thought still screams because it doesn’t think the paper’s good enough, I can write it down digitally. If it’s still persisting after that, then I talk over the thought with a friend. That’s often the first recourse in our society, but for me, it’s the last recourse, because talking things over can solidify thoughts more than necessary and it involves putting thoughts into other people’s heads, too.

There are other thought loops that don’t need processing; they just need a BIG interruption. These are my top 3 favorite ways of clearing my mind:

  • The Ursonate: A rhythmic nonsense poem. You can watch my favorite verse progression, or read my post about learning it.
  • Manjushri chant: A Tibetan mantra which can be chanted with an increasing tempo until it gets so fast that no thoughts can squeeze in. Usually a teacher leads it, but I also made a little web version for myself.
  • Kum Nye: A form of Tibetan Yoga with slow poses. Some of the poses bring up such intense bodily feelings that they clear my mind as well. You can learn Kum Nye from Nyingma Institute or a book.

To properly use my chant-the-thoughts-away techniques, I’ve found that I also need to avoid incompatible activities. Mostly, that means avoiding listening to music or watching concerts. I’ve found that I can’t chant while listening to someone else’s audio track, but I can still think (A LOT). Therefore, no music listening for me. That’s okay, I make my own!

Now you might be wondering: is it working? Are my thoughts drying out? Yes and no. I’m noticing much less unnecessary negative thoughts, like judgments about other people or about myself. I do still have many brainstorming thoughts, but they’re not as all-consuming as before.

I’ve noticed it’s particularly important that I employ these techniques after a happening, event or conversation. In the past, I’d often get in loops of rehashing and regret, which would turn an experience negative. Now, the experience is what it is, without one aspect of it being multiplied by my mind. It’s also important to dry thoughts out while I’m working on something I find difficult, as negative self-judgments can also easily multiply and get in the way of progress. It’s all about not letting the mind make a thought bigger than it needs to be, if it needs to be there at all.

My techniques are obviously very much inspired by having spent months on a Tibetan Buddhist retreat and experimenting with everything we learned there. But your mileage may vary. Also, your mind may work completely different from mine. Or you may not have any need for these techniques. Who knows? I do not know your mind. But I know mine much better now, and I’m going to try my best to retrain it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Learning the Ursonate: the mind-clearing benefits of non-conceptual sound poetry

In the last two weeks of a 4-month Tibetan Buddhist retreat, we were instructed to engage in “non-conceptual silence.”

I already knew how to engage in silence, as I had worn my “In Silence” badge many times earlier in the retreat. Non-conceptual silence was new to me. It meant no reading of the many Buddhist books I’d amassed or even my Kurt Vonnegut short stories collection. It meant no dance parties to pop songs. Literature and lyrics are chock full of concepts, and the challenge was to avoid engaging the mind in concepts unless absolutely necessary.

I still wanted a way to spend my breaks, some way to engage my mind. That’s when I remembered a 3-minute long animation called Primiti Too Taa, which illustrates a “sound poem” of made-up syllables. That animation had stuck with me since first watching it in college; I’d find myself looking it up once a year to watch again or share with a friend. There was something about the rhythmic nonsense sounds that resonated with me.

This time after re-watching the animation, I researched its source. The original poem is The Ursonate by German Dadist artist Kurt Schwitters, and it is an entire hour of made-up syllables spoken with rhythmic intonation.

And thus, I spent my breaks reciting that poem in my room. I listened to mp3 recordings while I followed along with a PDF of the text.

I loved how it engaged my mind fully while not miring it in concepts and judgments of how things are or should be in the world. I found myself reciting my favorite verses while doing other activities, and that allowed my body to enjoy those activities more. My mind is one that likes to fill itself with thoughts, and as those thoughts tend toward the critical/anxious side, they can take away from my bodily enjoyment of activities. By engaging it with the Ursonate, I make it harder for the negative thoughts to pop up.

Because I benefited so much from the Ursonate, I want to make it easier for other people to recite it. Using a text-audio sync-up tool, I’ve made video recordings of the entire Ursonate with each line bolded as Kurt recites it, and uploaded them to Youtube. You can watch the entire Ursonate, the 4 parts separately, or if you're short on time, my favorite progression of verses.

If you try it out, do let me know how it works for you. Everyone’s mind is different, and I’m curious if there are other minds out there that benefit from sound poetry.
(And hey, maybe one day, we’ll all get together and recite the Ursonate together in a room. Mind-clearing, engage!)

Monday, March 6, 2017

My Nightly Gratitude Journal

It can be hard to keep up any practice, especially at night when willpower is at an all-time low and the body wants to rest. I have found that when a practice is powerful enough, however, my mind and body can find a way.

I have now been keeping up a nightly gratitude journaling practice for more than 3 months — and I intend to continue it.

I first started the practice during Thanksgiving last year, after a seasonally themed gratitude class by Erika Rosenberg at the Nyingma Institute. Erika mentioned various studies where people’s positivity and general health increased while gratitude journaling, and recommended we try it ourselves. I’m a sucker for science-backed positivity boosts and for doing the extra credit in class, so I immediately started my own journal. I was also in the midst of a 4 month Buddhist retreat, so I had ample mental space to start practices and study their effects.

For my gratitude journal, I decided to focus on feeling grateful towards people rather than things, because I was also working on my tendency to negatively judge others. I figured that I could counter the negative judgments conjured up by my mind by purposefully conjuring up positive judgments as well. Anecdotally, it works!

Now, every night, I write “Today I’m grateful for”, number my lines 1–10, and in each spot I write “person X for doing action Y”. Admittedly, 10 is a high number for a gratitude journal, but I like forcing myself to dig deep to think of 10 interactions each day. And if it’s been a solitary day, I can always thank my cats for being playful. :)

To encourage friends and family to start a gratitude practice, I made them journals for Christmas by pasting the instructions below (PNG, PSD) on the inside cover of little notebooks.

As with any practice, I encourage you to experiment with the format and see what is most effective for you. I wish you well on your journey.

Instructions for gratitude journal

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