John Muir on Nature’s Beauty

Here’s an excerpt from The Mountains of California, by John Muir. Jack Kornfield tells the story beautifully in a Dharma talk, starting at 37:51.

One of the most beautiful and exhilarating storms I ever enjoyed in the Sierra occurred in December, 1874, when I happened to be exploring one of the tributary valleys of the Yuba River. The sky and the ground and the trees had been thoroughly rain-washed and were dry again. The day was intensely pure, one of those incomparable bits of California winter, warm and balmy and full of white sparkling sunshine, redolent of all the purest influences of the spring, and at the same time enlivened with one of the most bracing wind-storms conceivable. Instead of camping out, as I usually do, I then chanced to be stopping at the house of a friend. But when the storm began to sound, I lost no time in pushing out into the woods to enjoy it. For on such occasions Nature has always something rare to show us, and the danger to life and limb is hardly greater than one would experience crouching deprecatingly beneath a roof.

[…]

Toward midday, after a long, tingling scramble through copses of hazel and ceanothus, I gained the summit of the highest ridge in the neighborhood; and then it occurred to me that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the Æolian music of its topmost needles. […] I made choice of the tallest of a group of Douglas Spruces that were growing close together like a tuft of grass, no one of which seemed likely to fall unless all the rest fell with it. Though comparatively young, they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brushy tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy. Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobo-link on a reed.

 

In its widest sweeps my tree-top described an arc of from twenty to thirty degrees, but I felt sure of its elastic temper, having seen others of the same species still more severely tried–bent almost to the ground indeed, in heavy snows–without breaking a fiber. I was therefore safe, and free to take the wind into my pulses and enjoy the excited forest from my superb outlook. […] Now my eye roved over the piny hills and dales as over fields of waving grain, and felt the light running in ripples and broad swelling undulations across the valleys from ridge to ridge, as the shining foliage was stirred by corresponding waves of air.

[…]

The sounds of the storm corresponded gloriously with this wild exuberance of light and motion. The profound bass of the naked branches and boles booming like waterfalls; the quick, tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur; the rustling of laurel groves in the dells, and the keen metallic click of leaf on leaf–all this was heard in easy analysis when the attention was calmly bent.

[…]

I kept my lofty perch for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music [of life] itself.

Don’t put anyone outside of your heart

From Tara Brach’s beautiful Secret Beauty Solstice Talk:

This story was told by a Unitarian minister. It happened during a family trip. Her and her husband and two children were traveling on Christmas day.

They stopped at a restaurant that was nearly empty.

Her one-year-old, Eric, was in a high chair and she heard him squeal with glee as he sang, “Hi there! Hi there! Hi there!” — these are two words he thought were one. And his face was alive with excitement.

Then she says, “I saw the source of his merriment and my eyes could not take it in all at once. A tattered rag of a coat, baggy pants, both they and the zipper lay over a spindly body, gums as bare as Eric’s, hair uncombed, unwashed, and his hands were waving in the air, flapping about on loose wrists. ‘Hi there, baby! Hi there, big boy! I see you, buster!’ My husband and I exchanged a look that was a cross between ‘what do we do’ and ‘poor devil.’

“Eric continued to laugh and answer, ‘Hi there! Hi there!’ Every call was echoed. This old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby. I shoved a cracker at Eric and he pulverized it on the tray. I whispered, ‘Why me?’ under my breath.

“Our meal came and the nuisance continued. Now the old bum was shouting from across the room, ‘Do you know patty cake? Attaboy! Do you know peek-a-boo? Hey, look, he knows peek-a-boo!’ We ate in silence except Eric, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring applause of a skid row bum.

“Finally we had enough. Dennis went to pay the check and implored me, ‘Get Eric and meet me in the parking lot.’ I trundled Eric out of the high chair and looked towards the exit. The old man sat poised and waiting, his chair directly between me and the door. ‘Lord, just let me get out of here before he speaks to me or Eric.’ I headed towards the door.

“It soon became apparent that both the lord and Eric had other plans. As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back, walking to sidestep him and any air he might be breathing. As I did so, Eric, all the while his eyes riveted to his best friend, leaned far over my arm, reaching with both arms in a baby’s ‘pick me up’ position.

“In a split second of balancing my baby and turning to counter his weight, I came eye to eye with the old man. Eric was lunging for him, arms wide open. The bum’s eyes both asked and implored, ‘Would you let me hold your baby?’ There was no need for me to answer, since Eric propelled himself from my arms to the man’s.

“Suddenly, a very old man and a young baby were involved in a love relationship. Eric laid his tiny head on the man’s ragged shoulder. The man’s eyes closed and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. His aged hands, full of grime and pain and hard labor, gently, so gently, cradled my baby’s bottom and stroked his back.

“I stood awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Eric in his arms for a moment and then his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm, commanding voice, ‘You take care of this baby.’

“Somehow I managed, ‘I will.’ from a throat that contained a stone. He pried Eric from his chest, unwillingly, longingly, as though he were in pain.

“I held my arms open to receive my baby and again the gentleman addressed me, ‘God bless you, ma’am. You’ve given me my Christmas gift.’

“I said nothing more than a muttered, ‘Thanks.’ With Eric back in my arms, I ran for the car.

“Dennis wondered why I was crying and holding Eric so tightly and why I was saying, ‘My God, my God, forgive me.’

Don’t put anyone outside of your heart. Often the story we tell ourselves about someone else is very far from the truth.

How-to Get Started with Mindfulness Meditation

The guide below is meant to be followed casually. Take your time, and let meditation enter your life at whatever pace feels right to you.

1) Do your first guided meditation.

Find a comfortable place to sit, where you won’t be distracted for a few minutes. Silence your phone. Sit comfortably. Then, follow this guided meditation. (Here’s a good text version of the meditation in case you’d rather read it before trying it.)

2) Don’t be hard on yourself when you inevitably get lost in thought or sleepy.

Being lost in thought or sleepy does not mean you’re a bad meditator. The mind does an amazing job of staying busy! And it’s natural to become sleepy when you relax. Be kind to yourself — do not judge yourself. There is no such thing as a bad meditator.

When your mind runs and you eventually notice you’ve been lost in thought, pause for a moment, be aware that you were just thinking, and kindly and gently bring your attention back to your body and breath. You can’t stop the thought or sleepiness, but you can react with kindness and love.

When you notice you’re feeling sleepy, try opening your eyes and resting your gaze on a neutral object, like the floor. If you’re still sleepy, stand up and continuing meditating, either with your eyes open or closed.

3) Try other guided meditations.

There are a wide variety of free, online guided meditations that you should experiment with. Guided meditations can be about awareness, loving kindness (metta), forgiveness, the breath, and many other topics. Experiment and see what you like.

Start with short meditations — 3-10 minutes. As you get more comfortable, experiment with longer meditations — 15, 20, 30, 45 minutes.

Below you will find my favorite guided meditation resources:

4) Experiment with different postures.

Try sitting on a couch or chair. Try sitting on a cushion or bench — your local Sangha (see below) will have these available to try for free. Try standing (this is especially helpful when you’re sleepy). Try walking meditation. And try lying down.

5) Learn the Buddhist principals behind meditation — known as the Dharma.

There are several ways to learn the Dharma. My suggestions are below:

Dharma Talks

These are talks given by Buddhist teachers. My favorites are listed below:

You can find other Dharma talks at Dharma Seed. My favorite teachers are Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, and any monastic such as Thanissara and Kittisaro.

Books

My favorite books on this topic are:

6) Experiment with unguided meditations.

Once you’re comfortable with guided meditations, experiment with unguided meditations. Start short — 5 or 10 minutes. Lengthen them as you get more comfortable. Choose whatever type of meditation feels right — open awareness, breath awareness, loving kindness, etc.

Meditation timers are very useful for unguided meditations. This is a great one. You can also use one of the many apps available on the iOS and Android marketplaces. Unfortunately I don’t have a recommendation.

You may also consider getting a singing bell to ring at the end your meditations. I’m not familiar with a good online purchase option. I bought mine at a local Tibetan store.

Also, here’s a great meditation FAQ from Tara Brach.

7) Attend a meditation/Buddhist community evening in your area — known as a Sangha.

Your area likely has at least one Buddhist community, known as a Sangha, that meets once a week in the evening. Usually during these meetings, a teacher will guide you through a 30-45 minute meditation, which is followed by a 45-60 minute Dharma talk.

Experiment with attending a nearby Sangha. Try going two or three times to start. Don’t make a judgment after just one visit — you may get unlucky and attend an off night.

The two San Francisco Sanghas I regularly attend are: San Francisco Insight and Mission Dharma.

8) Go on a multi-day, silent meditation retreat.

Your area likely has a retreat center. Google to see what’s available. Ensure the day-to-day schedule, including food and accommodations, will be comfortable for you.

Footnotes

[1] Jack’s CD collection comes with two CDs, each with three meditations. The three meditations are combined into one long audio track, making it hard to jump around between meditations. To help with this, I’ve copy-pasted the start and end of each meditation below.

Breathing Meditation:
session: 1
start: 5:17
end: 28:15

Loving Kindness (Metta):
session: 1
start: 33:47
end: 55:45

Forgiveness:
session: 1
start: 1:00:37
end: (end of session)

Working with Difficulties:
session: 2
start: 1:19
end: 11:50

Gratitude and Joy:
session: 2
start: 15:00
end: 27:25

Mind like sky
session: 2
start: 29:20
end: (end of session)

 

The Boat and Two Arrows

Imagine yourself lying in a small rowboat on a calm lake, enjoying the gentle rocking of waves.  When all of a sudden another boat bumps into your boat, startling you with a loud bang and a sudden jolt.  Initially you’re angry — someone else deliberately bumped into your boat and interrupted your quiet moment.  What an ass!  However, when you sit up and look at the boat, you notice it’s empty.  The wind and current you were enjoying a moment ago pushed this other boat into yours.  Yet now you’ve lost concentration and your tranquility along with it.

Your discomfort is a result of two metaphorical arrows being shot at you.  The first arrow was the initial surprise and shock of another boat running into you.  The wind and current shot this arrow at you.  However, the second arrow was the anger that took away your calm state of mind.  You shot the second arrow at yourself.

The first arrow could not be avoided — you cannot control the other boat.  However, the second arrow could have been avoided.  If you were not so quick to assign blame and hence become angry, you could have continued to enjoy your serenity even after the initial disruption.

I expect this hypothetical story sounds familiar.  We commonly invent scenarios in our heads before we know all the facts.  We make assumptions about other people and we let those assumptions anger us, which creates a false distance between us and others.

Compassion breaks down assumptions about people, and hence lessens anger and its control over our mood.  Through practicing compassion we can avoid shooting ourselves with a second arrow.  Without shooting a second arrow we’ll be nicer to both friends and strangers, and we’ll be happier, too.  Try not to shoot the second arrow.

Story credit: here and here.  Photo credit: here.

Patience to Find the Way

A young boy traveled to Japan to a school of a famous martial artist.  He wanted to be a student.  This young boy — when he arrived at the dojo — was given an audience by the sensei (teacher).

The teacher said, “What do you wish from me?”

The student responded, “I wish to be your student and become the finest student in the land.  How long must I study?”

The master replied, “How long do you think you should study?”

“I want to study for as long as I need to study.  How long should that be?”

“10 years at least!” the master answered.

“What if I study twice as hard as all your other students?”

“20 years, then.”

“20 years?!  What if I practice day and night with all my effort?”

The master answered, “Then it would be 30 years.”

“How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me it will take longer?”

“The answer is clear,” said the teacher, “when one eye is fixed on your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way.”

In other words, a full, complete presence gives us more clarity and a broader view to find the way.

Source: The Power of Patience

Mindfulness and Meditation Resources

The below post has been reworked in a new post, here. And the below post is not out of date compared to the newer, linked-to post.

I’ve received several requests for mindfulness and meditation resources. I’ll share my favorites in this post.

Background / Introduction

I got into meditation in the early part of 2012, and it’s now a big part of my life. Mindfulness and meditation have changed me in many beautiful ways: I am happier and more calm; I see beauty in ordinary, everyday things; I feel immense joy much more often; and I am not controlled by negative emotions and feelings; I am accepting of whatever is happening, good or bad; I am more compassionate, towards myself and others; I am less judgemental; the list goes on!

I spend most of my meditation and mindfulness practice listening to Dharma talks, following guided meditations, doing unguided meditations, and attending Sangha. I also attended a 5-day insight meditation retreat in early 2015. Each of these categories are covered below.

Dharma Talks

Dharma in Pali (the language the Buddha spoke) means truth. Dharma talks are 60-ish-minute talks about Buddhist teachings. They tend to be very, very practical, and great listens.

A huge repository of Dharma talks are available here: dharmaseed.org. Click on “talks” and either view the most recent talks (there’s an RSS feed, too), or search for things like “forgiveness” or “difficulty” or “love,” whatever you’re interested in hearing. My favorite teachers are Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, and any monastic such as Thanissara and Kittisaro.

My favorite Dharma talks are Wisdom, You Can’t Stop the Waves, and Loving Kindness by Jack Kornfield, and That Bird Got My Wings by Tara Brach.

I listen to Dharma talks on the bus, car rides, or while working out. They have great perspectives and advice.

Books

My all-time favorite mindfulness and meditation book is Fear, by Thich Nhat Hanh. The Issue at Hand by Gil Fronsdal is also great. Same with The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield.

Meditations

Meditation helps me practice and accept the beautiful principals of mindfulness and Buddhism that I learn in Dharma talks.

There are good, free, guided meditations at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. This short meditation is great, too, and anything from Dr. Robert Foster. Jack Kornfield has wonderful guided meditations for sale, too [1], as does Tara Brach. I enjoy meditations on loving kindness, forgiveness, breathing, awareness, joy, and working with difficulties.

If you’re interested in reading a guided meditation before trying one, read this. It’s a great, short meditation and a great practice.

I also meditate without a guide, using this meditation timer. I do “insight” meditation, which is all about the present moment — what thoughts, feelings, sounds, tastes, smells, and (sometimes) sights am I experiencing right now? Although when I first started I stuck exclusively to guided meditations.

What I tend to do is meditate 4-6 times per week, for 20-45 minutes each. However, when I first started, I meditated less frequently and for shorter durations.

Here’s a great meditation FAQ, too.

Sangha

Sangha in Pali (the language the Buddha spoke) means community. A Sangha usually meets once per week. A meeting consists of a 30-45 minute guided or unguided meditation, followed by a 45-60 minute Dharma talk given either by the resident teacher or a guest teacher.

San Francisco has many Sangha groups, as I imagine most cities do (use Google to find one in your area). I attend two regularly: San Francisco Insight and Mission Dharma.

I try to attend at least one a week. I love being “forced” to do a long meditation, and most of the Dharma talks are awesome as well.

Retreats

Retreats are typically held in silence and last anywhere from one day to many months. The retreat I attended was 5 days and was very difficult, but it greatly deepened my practice. I hope to attend one retreat per year.

[1] Jack’s CD collection comes with two CDs, each with three meditations. The three meditations are combined into one long audio track, making it hard to jump around between meditations. To help with this, I’ve copy-pasted the start and end of each meditation below.

Breathing Meditation:
session: 1
start: 5:17
end: 28:15

Loving Kindness (Metta):
session: 1
start: 33:47
end: 55:45

Forgiveness:
session: 1
start: 1:00:37
end: (end of session)

Working with Difficulties:
session: 2
start: 1:19
end: 11:50

Gratitude and Joy:
session: 2
start: 15:00
end: 27:25

Mind like sky
session: 2
start: 29:20
end: (end of session)

Finding Your Edge

I want to share a wonderful little story from Patricia Genoud-Feldman’s talk about learning from fear.  This story is about finding your edge:

There’s a story about a group of people climbing to the top of a mountain.  It turns out it’s pretty steep.  And as soon as they get to a certain height a couple of people look down, notice how far it is, and completely freeze.  They had come up against their edge and they couldn’t go beyond it.  Their fear was so great that they couldn’t move.

Other people tripped on ahead, laughing and talking.  But as the climb got steeper and more scary, more people became scared and froze, too.  All the way up this mountain there were places where people met their edge, froze, and couldn’t go any further.

The moral of the story is that it really doesn’t make any difference where you meet your edge.  Just meeting your edge is the point.  Life is a whole journey of meeting your edge again and again.  That’s where you’re challenged.  That’s where if you’re a person that wants to live, you start asking yourself questions, “Now, why am I so scared?”  “What is it that I don’t want to see?”  “Why can’t I go any further?”

The happy people who got to the top weren’t the heroes of the day.  They just weren’t afraid of heights.  They are going to meet their edge somewhere else.  The ones who froze at the bottom were not the losers.  They simply stopped first and so their lesson came earlier than the others.  However, sooner or later everybody meets his or her own edge.

It occurs to me that my love for adrenaline sports such as snowboarding, snowmobiling, skateboarding, and cycling is based on my desire to find my edge.  I love trying bigger, scarier things.  Even when I fall or get hurt, I love getting back up and trying again.

10 Tips for Happiness

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a guest post by a very dear friend of mine.  I’ve known him for many years now, and in the last two or three months I’ve witnessed him transform from a negative, pessimistic, bored, and unmotivated person to a positive, happy, driven, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer type of guy.  I asked him what was the cause of his big turnaround.  He responded with the post I’ve included below.  I’m honored to be the host of this wonderful collection of inspiring advice.  And I hope many of you can relate and benefit from his advice as well.

1) Procrastination is bad. If you’re unhappy, your state of mind often won’t change without an effort to actively seek change. The days, weeks and months go by and then you might wonder how you’ve endured a situation for so long. Negative emotions build over time and you may feel increasingly trapped. Taking control of your situation immediately could be the first step to happiness.

2) Plan your financial situation for the long-term. If quitting your job is what you need to move on to the next step in your life, that decision is unlikely if you don’t have some savings. Quitting a job without another employment opportunity lined up is sometimes necessary because it makes available more time to search for other opportunities and can contribute to your general happiness, making you more confident and allow you to project a better attitude to all who you encounter, including potential employers. Maybe sleeping on a friend’s couch for a few months is an option; there are many to explore.

3) Beware of emphasizing money as your guiding factor in life. Obviously money has varying importance in people’s lives. For people who have a spouse or dependents to support, money could be of greater necessity than someone who is single. If it means your income must go down to increase your happiness, and you can still live comfortably, it’s probably a healthy decision.

4) Continually challenge yourself (Never be intimated). Being confident can allow someone to make decisions they truly desire, but are difficult decisions to execute. As long as you’re being respectful and not harming others, recognize what you wish you could do and set incremental challenges for yourself to meet those goals. There will be setbacks, but with perseverance, in challenging yourself, you will build your confidence and probably your happiness.

5) Seeing decisions as binary can cause anxiety. Success and happiness are never reduced to one situation. Some people choose to define themselves by certain achievements like going to a particular school, working at a particular company or getting a particular score on a test. Most people don’t get exactly what they want and rather than allowing a disruption in plans to depress, it’s important to slow down, be creative and think about your range of options. What seems like a disappointment in the present could be a blessing in the future, or a detriment, depending on how the situation is approached.

6) Consulting professionals or friends for advice is helpful. Consulting professionals is expensive and consulting friends is not, so considering what you can afford is as important as considering which path can provide the most assistance.

7) Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Sometimes experiencing life without a grand plan can be a rewarding emotional experience. In our very structured society there is always a need to plan. Just because society emphasizes having a detailed plan does not mean you have to (in the short-term).

8) Focus on projecting positive energy. With friends, colleagues, family…. It’s healthier and emotionally easier to be happy. Determine your plan to maintain happiness. One example, there’s evidence that regular exercise increases positive emotions. If you tend to be negative, devise a plan.

9) Don’t blame yourself. If your life isn’t going as planned, don’t enter a downward spiral by attributing all perceived failures as your fault. If you are blaming yourself, you’re probably ignoring your many accomplishments. Be balanced with self-critique. Use it as a tool to make your future decisions.

10) Comparing yourself to others serves no logical purpose. Acknowledge who you are and what makes you unique, both positive and negative qualities. Placing your accomplishments only in the context of others is harmful, regardless of whether you’re doing it to belittle or build-up yourself.

Leaders: Inspire Confidence

I was first introduced to the phrase “inspire confidence” a long time ago.  I didn’t really know what the term meant until I went through a period where I lacked confidence in myself.  A leader needs to inspire confidence, because confident people are better employees in every single way.

When we’re confident we’re not scared to express ourselves — we don’t feel an urge to dampen our abilities by looking for approval elsewhere.  We’re not scared to publish a blog post or send an email without a review first.  We’re not scared to refactor a shit load of code.  We’re not scared to take a meeting with a big customer, or try a new, bold way of marketing something.  Confidence, in addition to enabling more happiness, sets us up to do beautiful, innovative things.

I can’t help but think of Burning Man when I think of confidence.  As I’ve said before, Burning Man is in part about radical self expression.  That self expression comes out because people don’t have social pressure that would otherwise impact their confidence.  There is no social norm at Burning Man, and hence all someone can be is their self.  The result is beautiful, innovative, and clever art.

If you’re in a position of influence, do your best to inspire confidence among your team.  The entire team will be happier, more innovative, and ultimately better employees.  And they’ll like you more for it, too.

This TED talk is somewhat relevant to inspiring confidence.  It talks about inspiring happiness and positivity, which goes very much along with inspiring confidence.