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Living This Life Fully

facing life with equanimity

I am in the middle of reading Breast Strokes: Two Friends Journal Through the Unexpected Gifts of Cancer, by Cathy Edgett and Jane Flint. Although Cathy does not use Buddhist terms in her spare but lyrical journal entries and poems, it is clear that she understands what it means to embrace Dharma, to live this life fully even while undergoing the rigors of medical treatment for breast cancer. She faces each day trying to be as present as possible to what each moment brings: the sight of a redwood tree outside her window, Mt. Tamalpais in the distance, the fragility of the body, with its soreness, nausea, and fatigue, the soft morning light, the joy of being able to walk or share a meal, the sound of rain, the clutch of fear. As she confronts the truth of what is, she comes back again and again to “calm, steady, present, and clear.” Realizing that suffering arises when she wants things to be otherwise, she is now willing to “be with the journey, instead of wishing or willing it away.”

Cathy’s mindfulness, acceptance, equanimity, and even gratitude in so much discomfort remind me of how Munindra dealt with the vicissitudes of the ailing, aging body. Read More 
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Yesterday, I received an unexpected gift that evoked great joy: a calendar for 2011. Usually, calendars don't bring up that kind of joy, even though I revel in the gorgeous photos of nature or human-made works of art. But this is the most precious calendar I've ever gotten because it contains photos of a girl I’ve come to love.

Each month has a combination of photos of Jessicah. I get to see her Jessi-ness from before we first met, when she was seven years old. In January, she'll turn nine. She's the closest I'll probably ever come to having a granddaughter, though I'm not a relative. We call each other "my special friend."

I understand, even better now than through experiences earlier in my life, why Munindra loved to be with children and why they were so attracted to him. He had a sense of humor and laughed easily. He was friendly and cheerful. He had a childlike curiosity and was interested in the smallest detail, such as a tiny purple flower growing by the roadside. Most of all, he didn't take himself too seriously, though clearly he was completely dedicated to Dharma, practicing and sharing it with everyone he encountered.
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thanks for everything

At the Thanksgiving dinner my husband and I attended last week, the hostess shared a story about one of the patients she had recently taken care of in the emergency room of a city hospital. Feeling unwell, an 80-year-old man had walked in all alone seeking medical attention. Once she looked after his needs and released him, our friend generously put him in a taxi to go back to the residents' hotel where he lives in a downtrodden part of town. Sadly, he tried to resist her kind gesture, practically pleading to stay at the hospital.

Another person at the gathering gave a similar account, this time of an 80-year-old woman who was sharing a room with his mother in a hospital in a Latin American country. Determined not to have any more blood taken from her, she refused the attending doctor, removed all the tubes that had been inserted during her stay, and walked out all alone at one in the morning. Where was her family at a time like this? No one knew.

Our friend looked at us sitting around the dining table--family and friends alike--and expressed gratitude for our being part of her life and for seeing her through a hugely challenging year. Unlike the two elderly patients, she has people who are there for her in good times and in bad.

As the Buddha said to his cousin Ananda, "This is the entire holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship."

Gratitude is essential to living this life fully, to living the holy life: gratitude for the caring presence of others, gratitude for the means not only to survive but to thrive and to share our resources with others. Yet, surprisingly, thankfulness is not listed as one of the qualities or factors that lead to awakening. But that doesn't mean it's not part of the Dharma path. Deep gratitude is the wholesome motivation that underlies the manifestation of those qualities.  Read More 
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generosity II

Because generosity is a big part of my daily experience, I’ve decided to keep writing about it. A week ago, I read the results of an experiment at an amusement park that make sense to me. Researchers at UC Berkeley’s Hass School of Business and at UC San Diego sold photos taken of passengers on a roller coaster after they completed their exciting ride. When given the choice that half of whatever they decided to pay would go to a particular charity, the passengers who chose that option generated the most profit for the photo company and the charity. My guess is that people paid more rather than less because they knew the money would be given to a worthy cause, not just fill the company’s coffers—and that felt good.

I think most people want to give. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to know that being generous leaves us with positive feelings, but another experiment confirms it. Social psychologist Liz Dunn found that when she gave people ten dollars and said they could keep it all for themselves or give it away, the more money people gave away, the happier they felt. Conversely, the more money people kept for themselves, the more shame they felt, which translated into higher cortisol levels. That’s a negative health indicator because cortisol has a wear-and-tear effect on the body. Isn’t instinct at play here?

I don’t think most people are aware of this link between generosity and health unless they pay close attention to how they feel and notice a cause-and-effect relationship. Sensing how wonderful I feel on both the giving and receiving ends prompts me to give whenever the opportunity arises. I like knowing that what I do, what I give, makes a difference in someone’s life. Read More 
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We often hear the ancient African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child." As a non-fiction author, I've come to believe that it can also take a worldwide community to write a book. Where would we all be, whether children or writers, without the generosity of others?

Generosity is a form of interconnectedness. Even a nod accompanied by "Good Morning" is a generous act. One could just as easily walk by without saying a word, without acknowledging the human being right in front of us.

Generosity is a quality of mind and heart and a physical behavior that ranks high in spiritual traditions around the world because it undermines and acts as an antidote to the "poison" of greed. The importance of this quality was reinforced when I worked on Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra, about a meditation master and scholar who helped introduce mindfulness practice to the West, because the project took more years than I ever anticipated, even longer than getting a Ph.D.

Part of what made it keep growing were the generous gestures I experienced from others. I was privileged to receive so much from so many from almost every continent: interviews, referrals, audiotapes, DVDs, correspondence, journal notes, photos, scholarly expertise, translations, hospitality, encouragement, and more. I can't help but think that this outpouring of generosity is an echo of what Munindra taught to those who came to know him.

It's one thing to read texts that encourage generosity. It's yet another to be in the presence of someone who embodies that teaching. Munindra was a man of great generosity--what Buddha called a danapati, a "kingly giver." He unfailingly shared whatever he had to give--food, time, knowledge, monetary and moral support, contacts, caring words, and spiritual friendship. Most of all, he loved to share Dharma, the teachings of Buddha, which he considered the noblest gift of all.

Unexpectedly, writing the book turned into a kind of study and practice retreat for me. In the effort to learn more about Munindra's legacy--the impact he had on the spiritual journey of countless individuals, Asians and Westerners alike--I unexpectedly wound up feeling that impact on myself. Gathering down-to-earth stories, whether poignant or humorous, enabled me to better understand the qualities that Munindra had lived and taught, the qualities that move us toward awakening, the qualities that can simply make us a great human being.

Through the laughter and the tears that the anecdotes evoked, I got to know Munindra more than I had during the brief time I spent with him on Maui, a time in my life when, regrettably, I wasn't as open to taking in all that he was willing to give. But during the process of putting the chapters together, I sensed Munindra by my side, still trying to teach me, and I found myself actually cultivating the qualities that I was writing about. Now, to help myself respond thoughtfully rather than react rashly, I reflect on how he would handle a situation or an issue that arises. Putting his advice into practice has taken me beyond the meditation hall and smack into the middle of living in the world, for Munindra never saw dharma practice or spiritual activity as different from being alive, from (in his own words) “living the life fully.”

Though Munindra is gone, I realized that it's never too late to learn from him because he lives on in the minds and hearts of the people he touched with his loving, wise, and generous nature. Following his example, Munindra's old students, family, and friends have generously shared their reminiscences and passed on his wisdom. Their stories have the power to reaffirm his teachings, reconnect old dharma friends to each other, and connect new ones to Munindra for the first time, providing a source of deep inspiration and encouragement on the journey toward peace, happiness, and freedom.

This is how the seed of a book gets generously watered by far more than a village. When it finally sprouts, there is the possibility of also nourishing those who originally cared for it. I am grateful to all of them, for cooperation is the giving that makes it possible to bring things to fruition.

If anyone else wants to recount memorable moments with Munindra, please get in touch: mirka@mcn.org Read More 
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