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Community Spotlight: Vonnie Neufeld

Where do you live?

Austin, TX

How did you come to meditation?

In college, I was curious and dabbled in learning the various types at that time. One experience was so powerful it frightened me and I took a break from it. Over time, I turned to meditation during difficult and anxious times but was concerned about doing it “right” so I spent time doing guided meditations. When I moved to Austin in 2014, it was Kelly and the Quiet Mind, Open Heart community that really inspired me to go inward again and stick with it.

What inspires you to meditate?

I am inspired to meditate by my desire to connect to my “safe place,” gratitude for the wonderful life and time I am afforded here in Austin, and without question, my regular weekly practice with Kelly. I am particularly inspired by a series we did that she framed as “Stillness, Silence and Spaciousness.” That comes to me often when I am meditating and helps me feel closer to myself and “to home.”

What does your meditation practice look like?

I’d like to say it’s perfect and daily for a specific amount of time, but it’s not. It varies. I regularly practice 4-5 times per week in some form or another. When practicing for longer times, as with Kelly, I lie on the floor. For shorter times, I can sit. I use the Insight Timer with nature sounds in the background. I also use meditation as an anxiety reducer when I am at the dentist, or getting a shot at the MD, or approaching a challenging situation. Meditation paired with prayer helps my nervous system calm and feel more centered.

Do you have any rituals or routines that support your practice?

My morning routine consists of waking to greet the day, writing my gratitudes, reading and responding in writing to the reading, and then meditation before a series of routine phone calls to support others on this journey of life. Gratitude, prayer and meditation go hand in hand for me. I meditate in other situations too, even standing in line or on an airplane…anywhere I feel the need to ground myself and connect inwardly.

How is your life different because of meditation?

Meditation is one of three things that has changed my life, the others being prayer and my daily gratitudes. I find choosing gratitude daily, even moment to moment, allows me to stay connected to myself and my world especially when life is upside down. Meditation helps remind me how my silence can be a place of love, peace and growth when that upside down world seems too much. Practicing these three behaviors together also helps me chose to “PAUSE” before responding to difficult situations. My focus is more on “acting on life rather than reacting to it.” Meditation also has changed my life by connecting me to the wonderful humans in my sangha who are on similar paths and who create a safe place for me to go inward to learn and grow.

What are the biggest challenges you have encountered in your practice?

Continuity and consistency and changes in routine are challenges for me, especially when traveling. I am always happy to be back in my home morning routine, though and am grateful for that. Knowing I have Kelly’s class and community reassures me my nourishing routine is never very far away.

What advice would you share with someone who is just starting a meditation practice?

Community – for me, that community support turned the tide toward a deeper practice. Also, letting go of the “perfectionism idea of doing it right.” Just do it. Just sit and BREATHE.

What does your heart most long for?

Continued living in gratitude and joy and accepting and knowing that I, along with all sentient beings, am worthy of love and belonging, warts and all. Oh, and yes, please …… a trip to Africa. 🙂

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A Joyful Heart

Every morning our youngest son Jack wakes up with joy in his heart. “Ready to get up, Mama!” he exclaims from his crib, “Every day good day, Dada!” How fortunate we are to wake up to this joyful reminder!

Every day is a good day to awaken the quality of joy in our hearts, and to share it with the world. In this month’s blog, we explore ways to connect with the innate quality of joy that we all have a vast capacity for experiencing.

In the Buddhist teachings, joy is the third of the Four Immeasurables, which are the four limitless qualities of an awakened heart. Mudita, in Sanskrit, it is often translated as sympathetic joy or appreciative joy because it’s the ability to feel joy in your own life and to feel other people’s joy as your own.

Life is hard, and many days I find myself wishing it were just a little easier. As I lay awake in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep after tending to my little one, I thought about how I wish I could tell you all that if you just follow certain steps on the path of joy, you’ll feel happy all the time, and life will always be easy. I wish I could assure you that if you meditate every day, or dance every day, or practice gratitude every day, that you would never wake up cranky, or get sick, or lose a loved one, or have your heart broken, or be overcome with worry, or feel depressed. 

But I can’t, because it’s not true. 

My teacher Flint Sparks likes to remind me, “Meditation doesn’t make life perfect, but it makes life possible.” 

Meditation won’t make life perfect or protect us from heart-wrenching feelings or circumstances, but meditation does provide us a way to meet life’s inevitable challenges, and the feelings that arise within us as we navigate them, in a way that embraces our experience, instead of discounting it. When we allow ourselves to feel our feelings and hold them in a kind and loving space, what often follows is an experience of relief, peace, acceptance, freedom, insight, or clarity. 

Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says, “What we are doing in this practice is moving beyond the fear of feeling.”

When I allow myself to feel however I feel without judging it as good or bad or right or wrong, it opens me up to also feel joy. 

Brené Brown writes, “The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories, to appear more or less acceptable, but our wholeness — even our wholeheartedness — actually depends on the integration of all our experiences, including the falls.”

What difficulties are asking for your attention and wholehearted acceptance? When you hold them in a loving and nonjudgmental space, can you feel how that opens you up to experience more joy?

I hear again and again from students who feel that they are not “successful” in their meditation practice. They feel like they are not doing it often enough or long enough or well enough. Please trust me on this: whatever you are doing is enough. The only thing that matters is that you keep showing up, for yourself, for others, for the world. Whatever that looks like, and however it feels, is okay, even when it doesn’t feel okay. The only way to fail at meditation practice is to not do it at all. 

From that place of “enough,” we can grow and expand. Acceptance frees us up. Heavy-handed expectations shut us down. What happens when you allow your experience, your practice, your life, to be enough, just as it is? 

A Simple Joy Meditation 

Settle into a relaxed and comfortable way of being in your body. Close your eyes and visualize the word “joy” written in the space in front of you. You can envision it however you like. 

Now, bring your awareness to your heart space. Use your imagination and envision that your heart has doors that open to the front. Invite the word joy into your heart. Let the word dissolve and simply rest with the experience of joy in your heart. What does joy feel like?

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Wholeness

The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories, to appear more or less acceptable, but our wholeness — even our wholeheartedness — actually depends on the integration of all our experiences, including the falls.

~ Brené Brown

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Compassionate Action

Compassionate action starts with seeing yourself when you start to make yourself right and when you start to make yourself wrong. At that point you could just contemplate the fact that there is a larger alternative to either of those, a more tender, shaky kind of place where you could live.

~ Pema Chodron

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Open to All Your Emotions

If your everyday practice is to open to all your emotions, to all the people you meet, to all the situations you encounter, without closing down, trusting that you can do that – that will take you as far as you can go. And then you will understand all the teachings that anyone has ever taught.

~ Pema Chodron

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Awakened Heart of Bodhicitta

Bodhichitta is our heart – our wounded, softened heart. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die. This love is bodhichitta. It is gentle and warm; it is clear and sharp; it is open and spacious. The awakened heart of bodhichitta is the basic goodness of all beings.

~ Pema Chodron

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Between the Lines

BETWEEN THE LINES

I want you to pay attention
to the
spaces, the silences, the pauses,
the gaps between the words,
the white of the page behind the black of the ink,
the calm that holds the chaos that spins through
this ever-turning world and I want to remind you of
the beauty of the unspoken,
the sweetness of the unresolved,
the invisible screen that holds the light and the shade
and the mystery that permeates everything,
the mystery that reads these words now,
and pays attention
to the
spaces, the gaps, the pauses,
the endings that begin
new conversations,
and the stillness
that envelops it all.

– Jeff Foster

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Awakening the Noble Heart of Compassion

The noble heart of compassion is the wish to alleviate suffering for ourselves and for others. Loving kindness and compassion are distinguished from one another in the Buddhist tradition in this way: loving kindness is the wish for ourselves and others to be happy, and compassion is the wish for ourselves and others to be free of suffering. 

In our effort to awaken compassion in ourselves, our ability to feel is essential. Our emotions are not an obstacle to love and compassion — they are the gateway to awakening more love and compassion for ourselves and for the world. Sometimes emotions come in gentle waves and sometimes they come in powerful waves that take you down and tumble you to the ground. Have you ever played on the shore of the ocean and experienced how sometimes the waves come just lapping up at your toes and other times they just pummel you? Emotions can be just like that.

Our first task as meditation practitioners attempting to live with open hearts and to generate love and compassion is to allow ourselves to feel how we feel. All of the ways that we disconnect ourselves from feeling are all the ways that we disconnect from ourselves and from each other. But we need support in doing that — in feeling– because it’s hard. Sometimes it feels overwhelming or even terrifying to open fully to our emotional landscape. Allowing ourselves to feel and meeting our inner world with compassion is the antidote to feeling overwhelmed.

It’s helpful to have a community of practitioners where you can engage practices to help you open your heart. Community can also help you find a feeling of hopefulness in the face of the world’s suffering, which can feel overwhelming at times. As we open fully to our experience and relate to it with care rather than resistance, we awaken the noble heart of compassion. Just as with loving kindness, acceptance is an essential first step in the practice of compassion

Compassion practice also brings a feeling resourcefulness. It reminds us that there is something we can do to attend to our own hearts, to offer kindness and compassion to ourselves, to hold our own feelings with equanimity and kindness and care. When you become aware of the suffering of others, compassion practice offers a way to open your heart and offer care. To be met with somebody else’s caring, even if all they do is say, “I’m sorry that you’re hurting,” can help alleviate the suffering. Think about it: when you are suffering and you know that people care about you, even if they can’t take the pain away, it can be a huge relief.

A few years ago, after one of the bombings in Paris, a news story featured a young French boy and his father who were standing at one of the sites that had been attacked. They were being interviewed by the television reporter and the little boy was being asked about his experience. He was talking about how there are bad people who have done bad things and because of this they had to leave their home to go to someplace safe. The little boy was crying and clearly terrified. Then they looked over and noticed that there were flowers and candles. The little boy looked at them and asked, “Those flowers are here to protect us?” and his dad said, “Yes, they’re here to protect us.” And you could see the little boy visibly soften into some sense of safety that there were these things here to give him hope, to remind him that people care, to show them that they’re not alone. 

Sometimes when we’re suffering or we are with someone who is suffering, the suffering can feel like it eclipses everything else. Compassion practice can remind us that that’s not all that’s happening right now. Even in the midst of pain there is the possibility of joy. Even in the midst of sadness there is the possibility of happiness. When we feel like suffering is the only thing that exists, we have “dukha samadhi”, which is single-pointed focus on suffering. That’s all we can see. Compassion practice gives us a little bit of perspective and lets us see that while there is suffering here there are also lots of other things.

As we feel suffering and relate to it with care rather than resistance, we awaken the noble heart of compassion.

Tonglen Meditation: The Practice of Compassion

Tonglen is a Buddhist meditation practice that awakens compassion. Tonglen is a Tibetan word – tong means to take, len means to give, so it is often called the practice of giving and taking (or sending and taking). In Buddhism, we talk about Samsara, which is the cycle of pain and suffering that we are all caught in. This cycle is perpetuated by a misunderstanding. That misunderstanding is thinking that to be happy we must reject what is painful and seek what is pleasurable. On the Buddhist path, we are invited to step out of the cycle of suffering by confronting the misunderstanding the fuels it. Tonglen is one practice that helps us do that. We are invited to invite in what is painful and to offer out what is pleasurable. This can be a very challenging thing to do and it takes courage to open our hearts in this way. 

Pema Chödrön is an inspirational teacher for this practice. Her book: Tonglen, the Path of Transformation, is an incredible resource. She writes: 

“All sentient beings without exception have bodhichitta, which is the inherent tenderness of the heart, its natural tendency to love and care of others. But over time, in order to shield ourselves from feeling pain and discomfort, we have erected solid barriers that cover up our tenderness and vulnerability. As a result, we often experience alienation, anger, aggression, and a loss of meaning in our lives – both individually and on a global scale. Somehow, in the pursuit of happiness, we have unwittingly created greater suffering in our lives. Tonglen, or the practice of sending and taking, reverses this process of hardening and shutting down by cultivating love and compassion. In Tonglen practice, instead of running away from pain and discomfort, we acknowledge them and own them fully. Instead of dwelling on our own problems, we put ourselves in other people’s shoes and appreciate our shared humanity. Then the barriers start to dissolve, our hearts and minds begin to open.” 

We all have exquisite vulnerability and tenderness. This practice reveals that. We spend a lot of time covering that up and so this practice takes courage. While doing this practice, it is common to find that it is very challenging to do, and it brings us into immediate contact with all the ways that we usually turn away from or close ourselves off from feeling pain or discomfort (our own or another’s). Seeing this, we have an opportunity to begin to open. This is an extraordinary gift. 

Tonglen is a practice that opens you up to see and connect with the pain in the world around you. It can feel overwhelming at first, but then it becomes an incredible resource. Seeing the suffering of the world, we can begin to turn towards it, instead of away from it, and feel compassion for our shared human experience. And we can awaken the wish for everyone, including ourselves, to be happy and free from pain. Noticing a moment of suffering in another being, you can pause, open your heart, breathe it in, and breathe out anything that you imagine might offer comfort. 

Formal Tonglen practice has four parts:

1. Open your heart. Flash on a sense of openness, inside you and all around you. Recognize that this space is always available to you, and you can come back at anytime and reconnect with it.

2. Work with the textures of suffering and it’s absence and begin to synchronize these with the breath. Breathing in, open to the qualities of suffering – dark, heavy, hot, uncomfortable, agitated (whatever they might be for you). Breathing in, extend outward the qualities of freedom – light, fluid, cool, relief, sweetness. 

3. Consider a specific life experience of pain and open to it completely. Breathing in, be completely willing to acknowledge the pain of it and to feel it. Breathing out, offer whatever you might imagine the antidote to be. Spend enough time considering the circumstances so that you evoke genuine feeling, but don’t get lost in the details of the story. Begin to let go of the specifics and let the qualitative experience ride the breath in and out. Continually moving with the breath, and still aware of the sense of openness, so that you are like an open window. 

4. Expand the practice out to include as many beings as you can imagine. Opening to the pain of the world as you breathe in, sending out love, light, healing, joy, peace….whatever it feels to you that the world needs at that moment.

Always begin and end your Tonglen practice with at least a few minutes of Shamatha meditation, simply being with your breath. And at the end of your practice, offer a dedication of merit, offering your efforts with the wish that all beings everywhere (including yourself) find happiness and freedom. 

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A Pebble

My dear friends, suppose someone is holding a pebble and throws it in the air and the pebble begins to fall down into a river. After the pebble touches the surface of the water, it allows itself to sink slowly into the river. It will reach the bed of the river without any effort. Once the pebble is at the bottom of the river, it continues to rest. It allows the water to pass by. I think the pebble reaches the bed of the river by the shortest path because it allows itself to fall without making any effort.  

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

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Loving Kindness: Expanding our Circle of Self

loving kindness

“By learning to attend closely to another sentient being, with a quiet mind and an open heart, we break down the barriers between our suffering and others’ suffering.” ~ B. Alan Wallace

Loving kindness is a way of expanding our circle of self. It starts with really connecting with our own longing for happiness and a fundamental belief that we are worthy of being happy. We could work with cultivating loving kindness for ourselves for the rest of our lives, and this would be a very worthwhile journey. The foundation of loving kindness is an unconditional acceptance of ourselves and our experience in the moment. Our circle widens gradually from there to include all living beings. 

The Opposite of Loving Kindness

If loving kindness has an opposite, it is judgment. Judgment and loving kindness cannot co-exist, but it is possible to hold even our judgments in the embrace of loving kindness. We are human after all, and judgment will inevitably arise. We often spend so much time judging ourselves and others, and we are often hardest on ourselves because we feel unworthy of love. It’s exhausting to keep fueling our stories of unworthiness, and yet somehow we do. They’ve been fed (often unknowingly) by our parents, our teachers, our peers, our communities, and our society. The path of loving kindness starts with being where we are, and who we are, and feeling what we feel, all while dropping the story line, which is so often permeated with judgment. 

Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray writes:

“As practitioners on the path, we need to open ourselves to our selves. We need to provide a warm, open, welcoming embrace for ourselves. And ‘our selves’ means whatever shows up in our experience….The number one principle of maitri is: we mustn’t judge. Don’t judge. Simply be with experience without judging. This is really difficult….Now some of us come to really positive conclusions about ourselves—that’s judging. But equally, if we have an emotion or we say something to somebody that upsets them or we miss something or our meditation (according to us) isn’t going well, then we judge ourselves negatively. Maitri is ‘not judging.’ ”

My Happiness is Your Happiness

The ultimate expression of loving kindness is when we realize the profound and inextricable interconnectedness of all sentient beings. There is ultimately no self and other. When I realize that your happiness and my happiness are not two separate things; when I work for your happiness, that is the cause of my own happiness. When I work for my own happiness, that is also of benefit to you. There is no ultimate division or separation between me and you.

Guided Practice: Loving Kindness Meditation

There are five different stages of loving kindness practice. Each stage widens our circle of care. The practice of loving kindness begins with extending the hand of friendship to ourselves first, and then opening ourselves and extending this warmth and care to others.  We move from ourselves to offering loving kindness to a loved one, then to a neutral person or a stranger (somebody that you don’t have strong feelings about one way or the other), then to a difficult or challenging person, then to all beings. 

Begin by spending a few minutes of settling into your seat and connecting with your body and your breath. Establishing a stable ground from which to practice loving kindness.

Feel your body. Sense the alignment of your body from the inside out and sit with a long spine and an open heart.

Connect with your heart. Rest attention in your heart space for a few moments and notice what you are present to.

Bring attention to your breath, without needing to breath in any particular way, just allow attention to rest on the sensations of your body breathing. Rest with the sweet simplicity of the breath flowing in and out.

The practice of loving kindness begins with befriending yourself as you are. Simply sitting and being and breathing allows you to begin to know yourself and love yourself, as you are.

As you enter the practice of loving kindness, begin with a gesture of loving kindness towards yourself, perhaps by placing one or both of your hands over your heart space. Extend the warmth of friendship to yourself, from yourself.

Now, having connected with yourself in this way, extend loving kindness to yourself using these traditional phrases:

May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be peaceful.
May I live with ease.

See if there is anything else that you want to offer to yourself. Offer what you feel that you most need to receive. Allow yourself to feel fulfilled and freed in the deepest possible way.

Now, turn your attention now towards someone that you love and care about. Make a heart connection with this person.

Take a moment to really see them, not just with your eyes, but with your whole being. See them and receive them. From you heart to theirs, offer them loving kindness:

May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be peaceful.
May you live with ease.

See if there is anything else that you would like to offer this person, knowing that there is no limit to what you can give. See your loved one fulfilled by the deepest source of happiness and freed from every source of suffering.

Now, turn your attention to an acquaintance – someone you don’t know very well but know well enough to call them to mind and connect with them. Without knowing much about this person, you can trust that this person, just like you, would like to be happy and free from suffering. With this understanding, extend loving kindness to them:

May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be peaceful.
May you live with ease.

See if there is anything else that you would like to offer to this person. Trust whatever comes. Imagine them happy and free.

Now, turn your attention towards someone that you consider a difficult or challenging person. This person too, just like you, desires happiness and freedom. Open your heart to this person as best you can and extend loving kindness to them:

May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be peaceful.
May you live with ease.

Extend any other offerings of loving kindness that you’d like to give to this person. See them filled with happiness and freed from pain.

Now, open your heart in all directions. Imagine threads of connection extending from your heart to all of the people in your life. Let the feeling sense of opening your heart continue and imagine threads of connection to living beings across time and space, as many as you can imagine. Imagine that your heart really is this big — there is no limit to the love that you have to give. Radiating out, like sunlight, to the whole world, these wishes:

May all beings everywhere be happy.
May all beings everywhere be healthy.
May all beings everywhere be peaceful.
May all beings everywhere live with ease.

Offer any other wishes of loving kindness that you’d like to offer the world.

Allow yourself to rest with whatever feelings of open-heartedness and well-being are here for you to feel. Connecting with your body, your heart, your breath. Feel what you feel. This practice begins with befriending yourself and ends in the same way. Welcome your hands to your heart again, or any other gesture of self acceptance and love. Let yourself really receive this love.

Bring the palms of your hands together now in a gesture of prayer in front of your heart. Offer a dedication of your practice:

Mall all beings be well.
May all beings be happy.
Peace. Peace. Peace.

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