Reflection on 2014: Gathas & GTD Principles

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Gathas & GTD

For reflections on my first aspiration, faith, click here

My secondary aspiration for 2014 was to recite gathas (short meditation poems relating to everyday activities) as a concrete way to integrate mindfulness into my daily life. While my original intention was to practice with one gatha per week for the whole year, I quickly realized I would need more time to integrate each gatha into my daily life.

In response I decided to turn this aspiration into a two-year project, and every other week incorporate a chapter from Ready for Anything, David Allen’s book on essential principles for productivity. Conveniently that book has 52 chapters, so along with the 52 gathas I was able to trade off one per week and complete half of each by the end of this year.

I found this trading-off approach allowed me to have a weekly practice that was rich without being overwhelming. These two practices also proved to be very complimentary: gathas supported my grounding in being while the productivity chapters supported my direct application to doing.

In this space I’ll share a few gathas and principles that impacted me the most:

Gathas

Looking in the mirror

Awareness is a mirror,
reflecting the four elements.
Beauty is a heart that generates love,
and a mind that is open.

Every single day I look myself in the mirror. Often the first thoughts which come to mind are judgmental comments on my personal appearance. Using this daily gatha helped me to continually remind myself of the true nature of beauty. I have a desire to judge others less by their physical appearance, and I know the key to achieving this is to judge myself less. Saying these words out loud while looking myself in the eye is a powerful experience that I am grateful for.


Taking the first steps of the day

Walking on Earth
is a miracle!
Each mindful step
reveals the way.

There are rare moments when I am in touch with the reality that walking is a miracle. Historically it has been only when I am injured and realize that walking involves so many physical functions that I typically take for granted! Saying the first sentence reminds me to cultivate gratitude for my health.

The second sentence has been a handy way to remember that mindful steps allow “the way” to be revealed on its own. Thinking about the path ahead is not always helpful; often just taking care of this moment in its fullness reveals the next step.


I also made up a couple of my own gathas for activities I frequently engaged in.

Here is my Piano Gatha

Resting on the keys I breathe.
I recall my intention to play,
allowing music to express my love.


For those interested in starting their own gatha practice, here are some reflections on the process that may be helpful:

-Remembering that I forgot to say a gatha is just as important as saying it. The intention for this exercise is not to reach some standard of perfection, but rather to bring joy into daily activities and smile when I have forgotten (which happens every day).

-I used the gathas in Present Moment, Wonderful Moment as a starting place, and tweaked most of them to suit my particular situation and need. I treated each gatha as a laboratory to experiment with moving towards the essence of what I wanted to practice with.

-There are a number of morning gathas, and reciting them helped slow down the rush of my morning routine. It was surprising to see how many activities I would typically do on auto-pilot within the first few minutes of my day. Waking up, walking to bathroom, turning on the light, going to the bathroom, washing my hands, and looking in mirror is already 6 gathas!

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Productivity Principles 
David Allen is one of my personal/professional heroes, and his book Ready for Anything offers beautifully succinct principles on productivity. Rather than just re-stating the principles or attempting to summarize them, here I will share some of the most helpful takeaways I had from working with them: 

The Four Roles
In order to properly collect, process, organize, review and do all the “stuff” that appears in my life, I’ve found it helpful to distinguish between four ways I can be:

  1. Artist: Capturing every possible thing
  2. Executive: Processing what each thing means and what I’m going to commit to do
  3. Manager: Organizing & Reviewing decisions about what do when
  4. Worker: Doing what needs to be done

My mood often dictates which one of those roles I’m most likely to enjoy at any given moment, and knowing this helps me decide on a daily basis which activities I want to engage in. A few examples of how I put this into practice:

-At the beginning of each week I find it helpful to put on my ‘manager’ hat and sketch out what I’d like to accomplish that week. I try to not re-negotiate this more than once per week; otherwise I can spend most of my week thinking about work versus doing it.

-I do ‘executive’ processing, such as reading emails, at very specific times during the day. I have learned to avoid checking email at night, as unresolved situations can remain as an open loop in my brain, contributing to less sound sleep.

-I save some ‘worker’ doing tasks specifically for when I’m in transit, as I can usually only muster a certain type of dull focus in such environments.


Power
A constant balancing act I face is that of freedom and control. For long-term sustainability they need each other: too much freedom and you’re lost, too much control and you’re stuck.

David states that concentration is the key to power, in physics and in life, and cooperation is the lubricant for the efficient flow of that energy. I found this distinction to be a helpful framework for understanding power, and would sum it up using the following parallels:

The generation of power requires: control / concentration / focus / determination
The use of that power requires: freedom / mindfulness / awareness / acceptance

The words for each requirement seem to naturally balance themselves and have served as helpful reminders for me when I am feeling lost or stuck and looking to re-energize.


The Magical Mundane
Thich Nhat Hanh often shares that a concrete way to improve wellbeing is to celebrate neutral sensations and see them as positive. For example, this morning you likely woke up without a toothache. For most people this not a cause for celebration. But for those who have just had their wisdom teeth taken out, a mouth that is not sore is indeed a positive thing. So, the logic goes, why wait until you have pain to celebrate not being in pain?

David Allen approaches this idea by advising people who want to be more productive to start by doing things on their to-do list they view as mundane, such as cleaning a garage. When unfinished items are brought to attention and completed they free up mental energy that was previously unavailable. Unfulfilled commitments we make to ourselves have a way of bringing us down, even if they seem unimportant and not worth paying attention to.

The practice is to creatively work with neutral/mundane items in ways that allow them to bring us joy. To quote David: “The mundane is not a substitute for the sublime. It’s just a secret passageway to it.” Or, as Thomas Edison put it: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”


Looking back over the year I am very grateful to both Thich Nhat Hanh and David Allen for their wisdom, and their generosity in sharing that wisdom publicly. I will continue this gatha / principles practice in 2015!

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My third and final aspiration for 2014 (investigating the link between decision-making, rumination, and depression) is currently a source of rich exploration, and I will write more about it in the coming year.

Reflection on 2014: Faith

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Faith

My primary aspiration for this year was to grow my faith. I define faith as the “confidence born from observing the fruits of practice.”

Faith does not mean everything works out the way we want it to. It simply means that we know two things with confidence: First, nothing has gone wrong. Second, by taking care of this moment completely we are taking care of every moment that unfolds from this one (i.e. the rest of our lives).

This confidence supports us in those moments when we are working with an edge or feeling overwhelmed by the sheer scale of a challenge. Trusting wholeheartedly in ourselves and in the potential for transformation can help facilitate seemingly miraculous shifts in well-being. Of course most of us need constant reminders in the form of friends, teachers and teachings that things are okay, but by gradually watering the seed of faith in ourselves, we can grow in our capacity to hold space for what arises.

How does one water the seed of faith?

By meeting what arises, being present with it, and seeing what happens.

At times, this can be difficult.

Earlier this year I was sharing an experience I had to a close friend about anxiety while shopping for winter boots. Purchasing clothing has been a historical source of suffering for me. I often go to great lengths to try and find the “best” item, and absent a clear best choice I can begin to ruminate and find myself in a decision paralysis, only furthering the intensity of my anxiety.

I was relaying the most recent episode of this decision paralysis to him, describing in detail how I felt myself slipping into the same old grooves of going back-and-forth while becoming physically unsettled and even more frustrated that I was back in this miserable spot I’ve been in so many times before. This anxiety surfaced an even more menacing emotion: doubt. I wondered aloud whether I was making any progress at all in my mindfulness practice, as it felt like I was back where I began with all the same suffering.

After listening with great patience he looked at me and asked “What if you could be in that store, facing all the same anxiety and worry and frustration that you’ve experienced so many times before…but be totally okay with it? What if you could shift from trying to stop the feelings from happening to recognizing they are there and trying not to get upset by that?”

I was floored.

His words served as a gentle yet vital reminder that the practice of mindfulness isn’t about “getting somewhere else” nor is it about trying to eliminate suffering. The practice is actually about a radical shift in my relationship to my suffering. By opening to my experience instead of wishing for it to be different I am paradoxically afforded new degrees of freedom. When I stop fighting how I’m feeling my mind is more capable of making wise choices, grounded in the reality of my present condition, about what to do next. That may be deciding to buy a particular pair of boots. Or, it may mean leaving the store and coming back another day. Either way, choosing out of awareness is always wiser than choosing out of fear.

By experiencing a more self-compassionate relationship to suffering I give myself the gift to be as I am. The well-being arising from such a response slowly waters the seed of confidence that the practice of mindfulness is worth cultivating. Over time, with diligent watering, the seed becomes a plant, which in turn grows into a garden.

I consider it my responsibility to cultivate this garden as a refuge for myself and for others to taste the wonders of life available in the present moment.

Brandon – True Garden of Faith

Click here for a reflection on my second aspiration, weekly gathas.

Effectiveness as a Teacher

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Cape Town

 

Your effectiveness as a teacher has a direct correlation with the depth of your own personal practice -Jeremy Hunter

Many years ago I was sitting on a mountain in South Africa. It was a warm summer day in Cape Town and I was soaking in the sun on a perch overlooking the magnificent Camps Bay. I was nearing the end of a consulting project in the region and had been mulling over my next steps of a while. I resolved that day I was going to decide what I wanted to do next with my life. No small resolution, but it was time.

I asked myself three questions: “What do I enjoy doing? What am I good at? What makes a difference in the world?” In response to all three questions one word emerged: “teaching”.  I received fulfillment from helping others learn, perceived I was pretty good at, and felt a quality teacher could make a tremendous difference. Plus, both my parents were teachers so I had some ancestral momentum.

Check. Continue reading Effectiveness as a Teacher

Pain in the neck

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OW Boston

One morning I awoke with pain in my neck.

I shrugged it off, reasoning that it was likely just a short-term kink.

The next morning I awoke with a similar pain.

Again, I engaged my habitual response to discomfort and thought little of it.

This pattern continued, but after a week there was worry that something was wrong, and the worry was strong enough to call me to action.

The first thing I did was Google “Neck Pain.” Continue reading Pain in the neck

Personal Sustainability – Mental, Spiritual & Themes

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Balancing Act

In this post I’m exploring the latter half of the four areas of personal sustainability, Mental and Spiritual, as well as sharing a few themes which apply to all.

Sustainability is defined as “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.” In this way I view sustainability as not just doing something as long as you can, but doing it in a way that promotes well-being (ecological balance) and prevents burnout (depletion of resources).

Mental (focus of energy)

When most people use the term burnout, I think they are referring to mental exhaustion. I don’t know anyone who intends to be burnt out by their work, but I know plenty of people who feel that they are. Here are some helpful ways I’ve found to address this: Continue reading Personal Sustainability – Mental, Spiritual & Themes

Sitting with Thay

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Sitting with Thay

Bell

Line forms, patiently waiting

Shuffling of feet, clinking of bowls, heaps of deliciousness

Stepping outside, inhaling freshness

Walk

The sun, it shines

Entering the hall, seeing a path, straight ahead: emptiness

I’ve arrived, I’m home

Sit

Breathing in, breathing out

Opening my eyes, directly in front, I see Thay

Posture straightens, thoughts abound

Breathe

Present moment, wonderful moment,

Following my breath, curiosity steadily rising, who are you?

Zen master, reading contemplations

Eat

Consuming energy, digesting freedom

Looking at Thay, I crave acknowledgment, who am I?

Be free, my friend

Stand

We turn, we bow

I stall awkwardly, hoping that perhaps, we might speak?

He passes, without words

Calm

Woman approaches, announces suffering

Asks for support, my heart opens, I am here

Deep listening, loving speech

Care

She bows, I smile

An insight manifests; Thay isn’t gone, he’s within me

No discrimination, no discrimination

Peace

Benefits of Mindfulness

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dessert in the desert

“If you come to mindfulness just expecting benefits, sooner or later you’re going to be confused.”
-Michael Carroll

If you Google “benefits of mindfulness” you will find hundreds of recent scientific studies. There is proof of mindfulness meditation’s effectiveness at strengthening attention in schoolchildren, creating more resilient business leaders, increasing brain density of the pre-frontal cortex, improving the functioning of the immune system, and plenty more. But most seasoned mindfulness teachers will tell you that while all those benefits may be true, they are side-products of the process and not to be focused on as the “goal.”

Three years ago I was speaking on the phone to Michael Carroll, the founder of an organization which focuses on sharing mindfulness to business audiences. We were talking about a new initiative I was involved with, and while I was extolling the numerous benefits of the program he stopped me and said, “If you come to mindfulness just expecting benefits, sooner or later you’re going to be confused.”

I was admittedly confused. Continue reading Benefits of Mindfulness

2014 Aspirations

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Wake Up OI

New Year, New Me. This year I have three primary aspirations:

1. Observe the fruits of practice

On October 15th, 2013 I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing, the core lay community of Thich Nhat Hanh, and given the practice name “True Garden of Faith.” No one is quite sure how names are chosen (except those who choose), but it is generally accepted that your name is an assignment, an indication of how you can grow in your practice of mindfulness, of understanding, of love.

Faith, as defined in The Art of Power, is confidence born from observing the fruits of practice.

Let’s break it down:

Observing: Shining light on what is occurring without judgment, without expectation. Steadily bringing attention back over and over and over to decipher what is truly there. Continue reading 2014 Aspirations

Reflections on 2013

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Bros on the rock

It’s that time of year again, to reflect back on the unfolding of the past and prepare for the blossoming which lies ahead.

In this post I’ll share an assortment of  insights from nurturing my four 2013 aspirations (integrity, names, humor and sustainability) throughout the year:

1. Integrity
Integration of thoughts & speech: I’ve always been a relatively communicative guy (this blog is prime evidence), but this year I took as a practice trying to share my thoughts and feelings verbally when they felt cloudy and muddled. I have the tendency to want to share with others only once I’ve already transformed suffering into a beautiful lotus, and not when I’m waddling around in the mud wondering where to go next. The reality is, much of my time is spent waddling. Continue reading Reflections on 2013

Fame

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Pops & Son '96

I’d like to introduce a new feature in this space: ‘transmissions’.

These posts will each contain one or two sentences that a wise friend once personally told me. Over time these words have served as guiding principles for how I live my life, and in that way I reflect on them as wisdom which has been transmitted to me.

It is in this spirit that I’d like to transmit them to you, here, as perhaps someday they will be useful to you in your journey. To begin, some wisdom from my father:

“Early on in life I knew that I would only be famous among the people I cared about…and that was okay with me.”

A couple years ago I was in the midst of a career change, and found myself talking with my dad about fame. Recognition from others has always been important to me, and for most of my life I viewed ‘being famous’ as something to work towards.

My father shared that in his early twenties he chose to raise a family instead of going to a prestigious out-of-state college, and knew from then on he wouldn’t achieve fame in the conventional sense.

This prompted me to ask myself why I desired fame among people that I didn’t know? I reasoned that it might help provide some external assurance that what I was doing was worthwhile. But this was a flimsy excuse: fame is hardly correlated with ‘worthiness’, and besides, I had all the assurance I needed within my own experience. I was stumped. I kind of still am.

Re-defining fame this way allows me to recognize I’m actually already famous. What else is there to seek? Thanks pops; you’ll always be famous to me too.

a brand new day is before me…