My reason

I’m a Buddhist. It’s something that has always been a part of me, but I never really realized how much of an impact it has had on my decisions and my beliefs growing up. The traditions I followed were taught to me as I grew up but I never thought about the reasons behind them nor questioned any of the beliefs. Honestly, until I decided to join this study abroad program, I didn’t even realize what kind of Buddhist I was (Pure Land if we’re going to put labels on things).

And its super interesting to study your own religion. I won’t say its good or bad because I honestly don’t think its either. It’s interesting because you’re viewing it as an outsider, understanding why others may question your beliefs the same way you question theirs. You see why it may be appealing to someone or maybe not so much.

But the effect it’s had on me? I think its mainly led me to consider how Buddhism has affected my life. And I think it’s saved me in so many ways. Looking at the big picture, it has the appeal of so many other religions, the existing belief that there is something bigger out there looking over us, giving a rhyme and reason to the world. There was a justification for everything that happened to me, good and bad.

Growing up I had a whole host of health problems that still plague me today, particularly my eczema. Just imagine having mosquito bites all over your body, trying your hardest not to scratch, and hating yourself for not being able to control any of it. The worst for me has always been my fear of going to sleep, knowing that I might scratch in the middle of night and wake up with bloody open sores. Then there was the depression and the anxiety that doesn’t really fall far behind this kind of physical and mental anguish.

But I don’t doubt. I have good days and bad days still, but I believe there is a reason for everything that happens in my life. I don’t doubt that growing up with these problems have made me a stronger person today. I don’t doubt that I’m extremely lucky for growing up in a family and environment that could give me the best care I needed.

I do know that Amituofo has been there for me every time. When I was hospitalized for my skin infections as a child, when I’ve had my worst migraines or panic attacks and I was fairly certain I was going to die, when I spent those days in bed crying and ready to give up, and whenever my anxiety creeps up on me at night and I lie there for hours on end wondering if I’ll ever fall asleep.

Life is hard sometimes, but I think it’s always a little bit easier if there’s a reason.

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What is this really about?

It’s 5:21 in the morning on Sunday, September 14th, the beginning of our third full day in Kyoto. It feels like it has been a week since we got here. And not in a bad way. Being forced to live altogether in a tiny space, while difficult for an introvert like me, has brought our small group of nine quite close in a small amount of time.

So what is this trip exactly? To be honest, when I first applied and then hurriedly left for the trip, I didn’t have a very good idea of what I was heading into. I knew that I had to get away, but I didn’t know where to. To lay it down in a nutshell, this is still an academic program focusing on Buddhist traditions in Japan. We will be taking classes on Japanese religion and practice, culture and society (which is taught by a Williams alum!), and a language class. We will also be taking short term trips to monasteries and temples to learn meditation and observe the workings of these places. Finally, at the end of the semester, we will have two weeks on our own to explore Japan on our own and to complete our own research project (something that still intimidates me to no end).

But what is this trip really about? I don’t think its exactly necessary or possible to have a complete answer to that right now. But throughout the past few days, I’ve noticed some things that I didn’t really expect. The students that have come to this program come from all walks of life, and have some very unique perspectives and ideas. It takes a special group to choose a study abroad program such as this and meeting and talking with these people is as much a part of the experience as the classes and trips that we are taking. At the same time, as a group, we share commonalities that are difficult to explain, but are the same values that brought us together as a group in a first place.

I took a very long walk by the river yesterday. (It may be because I forgot where to turn to go home, but that’s beside the point). It was the first time since we arrived that I had spent some time by myself just to think and I did a lot of thinking. While this trip is for me a lot about self-growth, learning to be more comfortable with myself, and pushing my limits, it is also very much about this group of people. During the trip, we are taking five of the Buddhist precepts, and the focus on this is a phrase used by Thich Nhat Hanh, “knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to […]”. I’m starting to see how important focusing on the group is important on this trip. We are here to help each other, something that I think everyone has been embracing in the past few days. In a way, I think working as a group and for a group, we are also benefitting ourselves. It is helping me see myself in a clearer light and I hope that it only becomes clearer through the next three months.

 

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*This blog will essentially be my journal for my time on this trip. I have found that in the past when I have attempted to keep a journal, it eventually trails off somewhere, I feel guilty about missing a few days, and then just stop altogether. Therefore I will be writing the same way I have been blogging. I will not force myself to write, but when I have thoughts, I will put them down. This is also a place that I often do look back on in order to read my journey over the past year and this trip is a continuation on that. The reason I choose not to start a travel blog is because I will focus not on the physical things that we do, but mostly the thoughts I have that stem from that.

Metta 🙂

On Meditation (Aka My Healing Process)

I have just returned from retreat at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center and I have to say it could not have come at a better time. I have been on spring break this past week, but my mind has certainly not been at rest. Since my retreat at IMS, my practice has faltered a bit, but this was a great refresher and has also given me some perspective on my practice since I have had some time to reflect on my experience at IMS, but it was also a much shorter retreat and had a different feel to it. From my experiences, I have compiled a list of some “stuff” that has really been working for me lately.

1. Samadhi (Concentration Meditation)
This is the first type of meditation I was taught. In this meditation, you pick a point of focus, typically the breath or your sitting points (ie your booty), and you keep your mind focused on this point for the duration of your meditation. When (not if) your mind becomes distracted, you simply notice it and return to your point of attention. I began my practice focusing on the tip of my nose because it was simple and I could feel a physical sensation for my inhales and exhales. Another form of this meditation that I have started to turn to is listening meditation, in which you become aware of the sounds around you and choose those as your point of attention. Even something as annoying as a car horn for the screeching of the train on the tracks becomes another point of awareness. Because a lot of my anxiety arises from concerns about my physical health, a lot of these issues arise when I focus on a body part (ie I constantly think I’m having a heart attack). By focusing on an external stimuli, I have been able to remain more focused on my object of attention. I have noticed that through this practice, my attention and concentration in other parts of my life, such as focusing in class or even just holding a conversation, has drastically improved.

2. Vipassana (Insight Meditation)
I have less experience with vipassana, but in the small amount of insight meditation I have done, its benefits have proved to be numerous, as this is the meditation that most yogis strive for (concentration meditation is a stepping stone toward this). It is an opening up of the concentration meditation, where instead of concentrating on a simple point of attention, one becomes open to all experience and sensations, all without judgment. When a moment of anxiety or worry arises, one simply notices and explores the sensations if he or she wishes. The intention of the meditation is not to leave a person devoid of emotion, but simply to allow people to become aware of their bodily states and perceptions so that they cause less suffering for the yogi because he or she has learned how to control them. On the T on the way home today, I started to have some migraine symptoms from having woken up at 7 in the morning and having eaten nothing but soup and bread the entire day. I had been practicing listening meditation because being on the T is a bit of an overwhelming experience. When I noticed that my head started to hurt, I shifted my awareness to the point where the pain began and became aware of the sensation. I then noticed that I was growing anxious because I hate getting migraines and I noticed that my heart was starting to feel tight. Then I realized that these were only sensations and sensations are temporary. My heart began calming down and the tension in my head drew its course and disappeared.

3. Metta (Loving-kindness Meditation)
Although its the title of my blog, I haven’t talked about metta very much. It is essentially a meditation mantra full of love and goodwill that one expresses toward oneself, then moves on to family and friends, neutral individuals, and finally their enemies. These phrases are as simple as “May I be well. May you be happy. May we all be at peace.” The idea is to start with the person it would be easiest to wish these intentions upon, even if it is not yourself, and gradually shift toward people who you may believe don’t even deserve these thoughts. Our instructor today, Michael Grady, said that he used the phrase, “May I be at ease” whenever he was feeling anxious. Its not a bad thing to have in your pocket to use on a bad or even a neutral day and the more you practice it, the more effect it will have. This is something I have not done often and I still have trouble doing (especially with myself), but I continue to strive toward it.

The chant that I originally learned on retreat at IMS can be found here in original Pali (the language of the Buddha) and in English along with a recording of the chant. I just randomly googled this, but it appears this person also first heard the chant at IMS!

May we all be happy and healthy 🙂