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Archive for April, 2011

Saturday April 23rd 2011 marked the one year anniversary of the passing of SB1070, the racist anti-immigrant law in Arizona. When this law passed it gained national and even international attention, protests sparked up through the USA, artists boycotted the state (the Sound Strike), and even major American cities decided to boycott Arizona (Los Angeles, Oakland, New York, to name a few). Other states have also followed Arizona’s anti-immigration push; Utah have passed a similar bill; Georgia is awaiting their governor’s signature; Alabama has had the legislature pass in both chambers; South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Indiana have had the legislature pass in one chamber; the legislation has been introduced and passing through committees in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois; Kansas has introduced the legislation but there have been some set-backs in committee; Mississippi, California, Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kentucky have introduced legislation but they are not really a threat. This is something that we can not ignore, I remember that a year ago this was all over the news, but as time has gone there have been more “newsworthy” stories that have occurred and SB1070 has lost its importance in the eyes of the media.

In February I read a story about a business group that had started an anti-SB1070 tour, this unfortunately was not based on the basic fact that this is a human rights debate, but the economical backlash that can occur with the passing of such a law. I guess the saying is still true; to hurt them where it hurts the most, and for most people it is their wallets! It is said that in the last year Arizona has lost $410 millions in tourism revenue. They also stated that if 50 000 immigrant families leave the state a billion dollars in revenue goes with them. It is calculated that 100 000 Latinos left Arizona last year, some of them legal and illegal immigrants. In September, Utah’s Lt. Gov. Greg Bell traveled to Arizona on a “fact-finding” trip to gauge the fallout from the state’s illegal immigration crackdown. In Utah, a group of bipartisan lawmakers and business leaders, along with the Mormon church, signed a petition saying they think immigration law should be left to the federal government. The main legislative champion of an Arizona-style crackdown in Utah, GOP state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, has revised his legislation’s original wording after groups estimated it would cost the state more than $5 million to enforce. The new version of his bill, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, will no longer mandate police officers to check the immigration status of suspects; it makes such identification checks optional for Utah cops.

As hundreds of protestors marched in Phoenix on Saturday, some sad and infuriating news came from our friends at the Sound Strike. Los Angeles, one of the cities that have vowed to boycott Arizona based companies (which has cost the state more than $140 million in lost revenue) until this racist law was overturned, has decided to award $106 millions of tax payer money to an Arizona based company, Honeywell International. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, City Council President Garcetti, and other council members are about to break their promise, and betray their communities in the process. On the website of the Sound Strike you can sign a petition to remind them of a promise they made less than a year ago. This money is for their bid to maintain the LA Waste Water Treatment Plant, the Honeywell division that is bidding for this is based in Arizona, along with its 4 major divisions of this corporation. Honeywell also has a record of broken air-quality and hazardous-waste laws on hundreds of occasions, and has exposed its workers to hazardous waste. With a track record like this, there must be a competent company that is able to do the job which is not based in Arizona.

In the last year, over two dozen immigrant hate bills have passed and unjust deportations are increasing. LA is home to the biggest latino community in the US, it should be a model for the rest of the country on standing up for immigrant rights. When the boycott passed last year, the City councilor was told to draft a ordinance restricting city contracts with Arizona based companies, this was never done. Honeywell is now working this loophole to its advantage, they are hiring lobbyists to help push their agenda on city council members.

What is most dangerous in human right struggles is when people forget, this is what Arizona wants to happen. We must keep speaking up against these hate laws, just because this story is no longer coming into your living room, it is still happening and people are still struggling. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This will not change unless we stay united and make sure that we let Arizona know that we have not forgotten and we will keep fighting until this law is overturned! For all the Canadians out there, we are in the midst of a federal election, look into your candidates campaigns and their stance on immigration. This could very easily happen to us if we are not careful and elect a government that believes that all human beings are to be treated with respect and dignity. On May 2nd when you are voting, remember to think of the struggle of the people of Arizona, vote for a pro-immigration party! We are all immigrants (except for native americans of course) and we should never forget that!

Here is a short film about the Sound Strike and the artists that have decided to boycott Arizona! Please take the time to check it out and make sure that others take a look… We must continue to pressure until this law is overturned!

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Noah Levine has offered us a new book, The Heart of the Revolution: the buddha’s radical teachings on forgiveness, compassion, and kindness. Noah is becoming one of the leading voices of the American Buddhist movement and in this book he invites us to discover the loving heart. Like so many of us, Noah never believed that he could ever release the anger that was within him, but with time and practice he discovered that compassion was a natural component of the heart that usually lays dormant within all our hearts. This book presents us with the tools to be able to discover our true Buddha nature, this is not a quick how-to guide, but more directions for a long and arduous path. One that can give liberation, but one must work hard to achieve, this is something that we must work at and persevere our whole lives.

I must admit that I really enjoyed this book, Noah has always spoke to me and his teachings have always been accessible and explained to me in terms that I was able to relate. His sharp talk is still very present, but I found that there was an elevated level of reflection and wisdom than what was found in his earlier writings (Dharma Punx and Against the Stream for those of you not in the know). I find that Noah has matured as a teacher but especially as a writer, I was impressed by his writing style that still contained much wisdom and street smarts as always, but there was much more wisdom felt in his statements. In his book Against the Stream I found that Noah was still leaning heavily on his autobiography, I found that in this new book he left more of the autobiography behind and really focused on giving people clear teachings for training the heart and mind. It is not that I don’t appreciate his life and what brought him to the path, and like he has always told me, “Talk about what you know to be true in your own experience”, but it was really great to be able to dive into these teachings of forgiveness, compassion, and kindness and relating it to my life and my practice. I have always found the Brahma Viharas particularly difficult in my practice, maybe it is based on the fact that I spent most of my life thinking the same as Noah, there is no way that we can get all this hate and fear out of my heart and mind. I have experienced a lot of aversion towards loving-kindness, and it is only recently that I have discovered that wisdom and compassion are really one in the same, this practice is more about heartfulness (as Noah puts it) and it is true that the goal is to live a life that is full of the positive and wise qualities of heart. If you were a fan of the Dharma Punx and Against the Stream books, don’t worry his street style is not far away (but more balanced I find) with his notion of the 1% ers.

The 1%ers might make you think of bikers, whom they considered themselves to be outcast of society because of the lifestyle that they chose to live, but Noah here is talking about the committed whom the Buddha sought to convert. Noah is thus aligning himself with fellow radicals who were bold enough to disregard religious pieties and social conformity (hence the reference to the bikers mentioned above). Noah grounds his approach towards joyful awareness that he has gained from his twenty plus years of meditation.

Noah had a hard time forgiving those whom had done him wrong and whom he wronged (I am sure you all remember the part in Dharma Punx when he makes amends), but he admits in this new book that ten years in he realized that something was missing of his meditation practice; and that was an engagement with one’s self and with others that connects with “citta,” the heart-mind of Buddhism. With Noah, meditation is a shovel; the treasure gets unearthed and polished and refined with practices like loving-kindness which them expresses itself as disciplined contemplation which leads to skillful actions. This book can be read one chapter at a time, focusing on the practice offered at the end, or as a series of inspirational teachings to motivate people to start polishing that treasure.

What I appreciate the most of Noah’s teaching, and something that I find in Stephen Batchelor’s writings, is that he relies on a non-theistic reaction to reject “buying merit or worshiping deities or teachers” that deludes most Buddhists. According to Noah we are to turn to the mind and heart instead of obeying power or gurus. The dharma’s direction emanates neither from divine reflection nor appeal to authority, but it is a verified truth tested by its practitioners, as the Buddha directed. He translates more conventional responses of “faith” into more appropriate terms for secular seekers. Ideology or dogma are replaced by terms like inspiration and confidence. I find that Noah is carving more his place in this new American Buddhism, along with writers like Stephen Batchelor that helps us challenge our interpretations of the teachings, but always tells us to go find out for ourselves and only believe what we hold to be true. There is no asking for blind faith and to subscribe to whatever they tell us, but more that we have to experience the teachings first hand if we are to see their benefits.

There is also a chapter entirely dedicated to the Metta Sutta, where Noah goes through it line by line. I found this chapter very useful in my understanding of this important teaching, his no bullshit explications helped me reflect and contemplate on what this Sutta is offering us and how we are to approach it. Like I said earlier, I have always found this teaching the most difficult in my practice and study, but I am finding more and more that it is probably the most crucial teaching that is needed in my practice. I found that there was a need for reflection after every chapter, challenging my own relationship to my heart and mind, even though they are short, I have found them to be full of wisdom geared for the next generation of Buddhists (the children and grandchildren of the sixties, the generation that his father Stephen Levine brought similar teachings to the masses helping to make these Eastern teachings relevant to the West). Every time that I read a new book by Noah I am reminded why he is my teacher and why it is his books that actually got me on the cushion and how I have not strayed since!

Noah might be more from the streets than the retreats, he is still an honest accessible voice that is speaking to an unlikely generation of dharma followers. It is true that within your lifetime you will meet people that will join the path and will with time leave. Noah is encouraging his 1%ers to continue on this arduous path, because you are not alone, support your local sangha and make sure to remain true to yourself on this journey. I mean what’s the worst that can happen to you? Freedom? Go check out this book, I am sure that it will at least make you question your relationship to your heart/mind and that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

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A little while back I had the privilege to guide my co-workers in some meditation and giving some ideas on how to bring mindfulness to their day-to-day life. I had a discussion afterwards at work with my director who told me that what I had said made her realize that she has never really been “in the moment” in her entire life, except when she was on vacation. This statement stuck with me, I find that this is a reality for a lot of people. We are so busy in our day-to-day lives that it is only when we are on vacation, where we make the conditions possible, to really enjoy the moment as it is happening. Unfortunately, vacation time is a privilege that a lot of people can’t even enjoy and for the rest of us it is a very limited time out of every year. Meditation practice is meant to be taken out into the world, not just when the house is quiet and we go sit on a cushion or that we are sipping a drink on a beach somewhere warm. Take a second to think about this, during your normal day do you make an effort to be present in the moment as it is happening? More specifically, at work, are you really bringing mindfulness to your moment to moment experience?

You know what, screw that, how do you feel right now? Are you happy, depressed, anxious, excited? What is true about this moment for you? Don’t judge anything, just be in touch with and aware of the present moment.  Are you there now? And where exactly are you? If you’re clearing your mind of the past and the future, the place you are at now is a state that is often referred to as mindfulness.  It’s a calming place. A place that offers quiet serenity. It’s been proven that getting yourself into a state of mindfulness can reduce stress, depression and anxiety.  And it’s been proven at numerous organizations across the globe to increase creativity, innovation, and yes…productivity. In fact organizations like eBay and Facebook have entire programs focused on improving mindfulness in the workplace. Having a program like this in my workplace is a dream of mine, but it is not easy to bring something like this into an organization. Let’s be honest, it is pretty much impossible to bring mindful practices to an entire organization. Putting aside organization-wide mindfulness, there are simple things you can do each day to bring mindfulness to your workday to give yourself a break from the fast-paced day-to-day meetings and deadlines. So try these out at work and see how it goes!

1- Breathe! Try to find a quiet place, or if you are so lucky, close your office door. Sit upright, close your eyes and slowly inhale and exhale through your nose. Take deep breaths. Feel your chest expand and contract with each breath. Allow whatever thoughts come into your mind to just come and go.  If you find your thoughts are focusing on events of the day (either past or present), come back to focusing on just your breath. Don’t judge your thoughts. Just let them flow. Observe the sounds and smells and sensations around you. Make your breathing the foreground. Try this for about five minutes, then open your eyes and allow your gaze to lengthen to take in the sights around you with a wider awareness.

2- Smooth Transitions. In a normal workday we constantly change contexts. We go from a meeting, to writing a report at extreme speed, back into a meeting, catching up on e-mails etc. Many times when we make the transition from one mode of work to another, we bring the former mode of work to the next mode. For example, we walk into a meeting still contemplating an email that we read just before leaving our desk, our mind is not fully present at the meeting. Give yourself some time to transition between modes. In the transition time, acknowledge that you are making a transition now. Come to a natural end of one activity and know you are moving to a different activity. Recognize the pause between the activities. Think about how you feel right now during this pause? Are you anxious, excited, nervous? Don’t judge yourself.  Just recognize how you feel. Then enter your next activity feeling fully aware and awake in the present moment.

3- The Bow. If your co-workers are up for it, try this out! This can be a very powerful exercise. When a meeting is about to start, sit in your chair with your eyes open, sitting with your back straight and your hands on your thighs. Feel your feet on the floor, your butt and back on the chair. Feel the desire to learn, to experience, to be awake. Then relax and feel the vulnerability of yourself. Feel the gentleness that comes from this vulnerability. Finally lean forward into a slight bow and feel the bow as a sense of a gift flowing to others in your meeting or others outside of the room. The entire bow takes less than a minute and really sets a calming mind and opens you up to a willingness to share and help others.

4- Observe and React with Serenity. When drama happens at work, and it will happen, it is hard to observe without being drawn into this drama. If by chance you get drawn into the drama, and it will happen because we are all human after all, stay present in the moment. It is important that you don’t draw on old opinions or anger, don’t get caught in dreams of how the outcome will be, stay in the moment and try to act with as much serenity that you can muster. React to the present moment with serenity and not all the other stories that arise.

5- Falter and Learn. It is important to remember that we are all human and we all screw up on a daily basis. I am sure that we can all think of a handful of events where we were not mindful today, and it will happen tomorrow. If you lose patience, or find yourself drawn into an office drama, or if you can’t relax or make smooth transitions, don’t judge the experience as bad. Look at it as a learning experience.  What was true about the moment that caused you to react the way you did? Did your reaction work for you? If not, try not to react that way again in the future.

6- Look out the Window. So many of us work in cubicle farms or other office formats that do not give you access to a window. We are caught in an environment of artificial light, neon bulbs buzzing over us, air conditioning, and a natural lack of the natural world. If you can, take a break from this artificial world by taking a quick walk outside to connect with a more natural world. Even if you are downtown in a large city, outside always helps us connect to a more natural world. If you are not able to do that, look out a window. It’s a proven fact that looking out a window into a natural setting reduces stress and anxiety. So give it a try.  Find a window and peer out.  Maybe you’ll find a tree and really connect with it. Look at the trunk, the branches, the leaves, how it moves in the breeze. Five minutes of this and you’ll be refreshed and awake.

7- Smile and Laugh. There is an old saying that happiness is contagious. Too often we bring our “work personas” to the office with us, usually these personas don’t laugh or smile, or show any joy. I think that our work life would be better off if everyone brought their “true selves” to work, and smile and laugh and share joy with the people around us. The contagious nature of joy and happiness is tough to suppress and it can do wonders for people who are stressed, depressed, or anxious.

8- Mindful Clock. This is not really a practice, but more a tool that you can use to bring mindfulness to your day. Set up a timer on your computer, cell phone, e-mail account (for all you Outlook users), etc. It can be a simple chime that rings throughout the day to remind you to relax. I have been setting a reminder for me to remind me to take a few minutes of breathing every couple of hours, to go on a smoke break and connect with people who I share the office with, it could also be to look out a window, whatever helps you relax.

I hope that this will help you bring some joy and happiness at work, being mindful doesn’t have to be a privileged moment that you have on your meditation cushion, it can be accessed everywhere, even work!  We no longer have to wait for our vacations to be able to appreciate our moment to moment experiences. There is no such thing as a dull moment, there is always something happening and you are missing it! Life can give you so much, you just have to look around and let it seep in! See you at the rat race with a smile on my face!

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I have been thinking a lot about something that one of my best friends, and greatest teachers in my life, says often. Keep your heart open, those simple four words I find carry a lot of weight and meaning, but what does it really mean to keep our hearts open? I have been doing this practice for a while now and find that these words carry a very deep connection to my practice and how it has developed, and continues to develop, throughout the years. I believe and still hold this to be true, meditation practice takes a lot of courage and humility, there is nothing more scary sometimes than to have some time alone with ourselves and our thoughts, and we do need some humility to be able to look at our weaknesses and faults with an open mind and heart. I have heard so many people tell me that they could never just sit with themselves day in and day out, I believe that this is at least partly based on the idea of spending time with ourselves scares the shit out of a lot of people, we do not want to go in there and see what is happening. When we are on the cushion we can not run away from ourselves, like we do so often, there are no outside distractions, just us.

So why keep our hearts open? What is that going to give us? The biggest and hardest that I have ever learned on this path, is that we must keep our hearts open to any situations that arises. Every moment is a lesson, we must be open to what presents itself so we can grow and learn from what life decides to throw our way. Every moment is an opportunity, so it is crucial that we keep our hearts open, it is not a service to ourselves if we are closed due to judgments and fear. I know that this is so much easier said than done, but I can tell you all from experience, that it is worth the effort. We are so programmed to judge and close ourselves to so many experiences in life based on fear; let go and open your heart and you will see that it was worth the trip!

Opening your heart helps you experience the peace and joy that is already within your heart, it helps cleanse negative energy and emotions from your heart and replace it with compassion and kindness. As our heart becomes stronger, we become more peaceful, joyful and able to follow our heart’s own inner guidance to be happier in our daily life. We are meant to be happy and not tied down by judgment, fear, ignorance, delusion, and hatred. If we can meet every moment with compassion and kindness, life becomes so much more enjoyable and peaceful. It will help us forgive those who have done us wrong, we will be able to move on and not suffer over events from the past. Also when we learn to trust our hearts inner guidance we will not be trapped by fear as we move along in life. We are conditioned to follow the stream of ignorance, greed, hatred, and delusion, so stand up and do what’s you feel is right, I am sure that most of you will agree that it is to follow your heart and forget what everything else tells you to do. Are you willing to passed up on a learning experience because you are too busy following the status quo of judgment and fear? Remember it only takes a moment to be free so, live your heart and never follow!

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