Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey.....

”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

Sacred Bow Challenge: Review Your Year & Set Intentions for 2020

By Leo Babauta

For the month of December, invite you to join my Sacred Bow Challenge (“bow” rhymes with “cow” as in “take a bow”) — it’s a way to become more conscious about how close out the year and enter into the new year.

The challenge is about:

Reflecting back on 2019 to see what you’ve learned, acknowledge what you accomplished and have gone through. Getting clear on patterns and struggles, seeing victories clearly.Setting intentions for 2020. This isn’t a “New Year’s resolutions” kind of thing, but being conscious & intentional about how we enter the year. What habits would you like to create?Setting structure so that we can hold to those intentions as best we can.

As we move through a busy holiday season and the year comes to an end, I’ve found that it’s useful to take a little time to be intentional.

Reflect on 2019

How can we learn from what we did this year, so that we can use it to grow? This is about looking back at how the year went, how we did with our intentions and goals, what happened for us — without judgment. Just getting clear, so that we can learn.

For example:

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Learning How to Concentrate

The world is a distracting place. And while it has certainly become more and more distracting in many ways, this is not a new problem by any means. As the futurist and best-selling author Alex Pang writes in his masterful book The Distraction Addiction, “Humans have always had to deal with distraction and lack of focus—and for thousands of years, they have been cultivating techniques that effectively address them.”

Let me confess something at the outset: I am very easily distracted. If I sit at a restaurant with a television, I can’t help watching it. If I hear someone talking at the next table, I lose track of my own conversation. If I pick up my phone to check the time, I might not put it down for 10 minutes.

In other words, focus does not come easily to me. I have to work at it. Years ago, I used to take my laptop with me to meetings, thinking I was being efficient by checking email during the slow parts. Then I realized I was paying no attention to the people around me, sometimes forgetting to get up when the meeting was over. Now I leave my computer at my desk—and try to keep my phone in my pocket. 

Smartphones are, of course, a huge source of distraction. Studies find that their use “increases reaction time, reduces focus, and lowers performance” of anything requiring concentration. This is why, by one estimate, smartphone distraction now contributes to almost a quarter of all traffic accidents.

The problem is that we are far, far worse at multitasking than we think. No matter what we tell ourselves, “Only a limited amount of information can be attended to at any given moment.” We may think we’re expertly juggling half a dozen tasks at once, but we’re really just switching between them very inefficiently, repeatedly disrupting our concentration.

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Practicing at the Office

Right Livelihood is the fifth practice on the noble eightfold path. But the reality is that the Buddha never held down a nine-to-five job, having traded a sumptuous lifestyle for one of even-handed asceticism. Perhaps that’s why even the most avid Buddhists often find it difficult to fully relate their practice to the world of watercoolers, pitch decks, and team meetings. Dan Zigmond, a dharma teacher, author, and seasoned expert in the tech world, hopes to bridge that gap.

“Part of my obligation as a Zen priest and as a Buddhist in general is to relieve suffering––and a lot of people are suffering in the workplace,” Zigmond said of his latest book, Buddha’s Office: The Ancient Art of Waking Up While Working Well (Running Press, December 3, 2019), which considers how the dharma fits into the white-collar world, parsing out skillful ways to take breaks and manage stress. Zigmond is no stranger to demanding workplaces: He has held positions at Instagram, Google, and Facebook and is currently the director of data science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, established by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. He’s also a Tricycle contributing editor and co-author of Buddha’s Diet, a book that explores the health benefits of a monastic eating schedule. 

Tricycle spoke with Zigmond about the ideas behind the book, finding a middle way between work and life, and how to know whether or not we’re on the path to right livelihood. 

Why did you write this book?

 I’ve been a practicing Buddhist since college, and I was ordained as a lay Zen priest in 1998 by Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi. For almost that long, I’ve also worked in the tech industry. For many years I kept these worlds fairly separate, but more recently I’ve looked for ways to bring these parts of my life closer together and take seriously this notion of bringing your whole self to work. This book is my attempt to put to paper some of what I learned in treating work not as a distraction from my practice but as part of my practice. It’s also about exploring healthier ways to be at work. 

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Thanks, But No Thanks

Once a month, Tricycle features an article from Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal that was in print from 1984–2015 and now has a growing number of back issues archived at inquiringmind.com. In this month’s selection “Thanks, But No Thanks,” which first appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Inquiring Mind, philanthropist and storyteller Bokara Legendre reflects on how her approach to giving changed after being surprised by the way Buddhist centers responded to her gifts. Be sure to check out related articles in the archive, such as Ronna Kabatznick’s article on mindful eating, “Pindabaht, Shabbat and the End of Craving” and Inquiring Mind co-founder Wes Nisker’s “Attitude of Gratitude,” part of his Spring 2010 column. If you feel so inclined, consider making a donation to help Inquiring Mind continue adding articles to its archive!

I was brought up by an old-fashioned nanny in a household where I learned to say “thank you” practically before learning to say “Mummy,” and where icons of the past, such as ancestral portraits, were revered. Subsequently, I have lived an emancipated life as an actress, journalist, party giver and spiritual seeker. Nonetheless, pondering my experiences in Buddhist philanthropy for Inquiring Mind, I notice that my expectations around celebrations of gratitude and immortality are not only surreally out of date but spiritually immature. —BL 

In one of his many lives, the Buddha was a hare who lived peacefully in a mountain forest eating grass and leaves. His friends were an ape, a jackal, and a young otter whom he taught to eschew evil and do good by giving alms to the poor and spending holy days fasting. However, he was distressed that, as a rabbit, he had nothing much of worth to offer. After much thought, he decided to offer himself.

One day, hopping about the woods, he met a Brahmin traveler and was inspired to say to him, “Kindle a fire for your dinner.” Once the fire was roaring, the rabbit shook the dust off his fluffy coat and jumped in, finally content that he was giving himself as a meal to the Brahmin and dying in the flames of compassion and purification.

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Humility and Humiliation

Sitting in meditation can make one sensitive and intuitive. It can also make you self-conscious and hypervigilant about making mistakes in the zendo in front of Buddha and all those people watching. Of course, there were my ordinary mistakes such as pouring boiling water on the teacher when serving tea or dropping food when serving the community. But there are also deeply archetypal scenes that haunt dreams and daydreams. These are imaginary and dreadful situations where you appear naked in the zendo, wet your pants, or offer loud flatulence when bowing. 

I have not yet enacted one of my more dreaded embarrassments, even though they may appear in my nightmares. I was, however, in the zendo when someone else did what I most feared—in full view of the community. Such a scene, during a meditation retreat, is embedded in the psyche and never forgotten. Wisdom is exposed for the perpetrator by living through embarrassment during a powerful enactment. For the observer, spiritual growth can also be firmly rooted in their path. Seeing someone live through your worst nightmare without lasting damage can be enlightening. The emotions are engaged, and they circulate awareness and embarrassment in the body.

In one seven-day sesshin at the Berkeley Zen Center, my job was to serve the food. All participants took part in organizing the retreat’s activities. When the meals were ready, I helped the cook put the food in the appropriate pots and bring the food to the zendo. In the zendo, the cook started the elaborate meal ceremony by offering three full bows as a symbol of respect for the source of the food and those who would receive it. This short but poignant ritual is accompanied by bells. All attention was tuned up; hungry meditators could smell the food and were anticipating a delicious meal and a rest thereafter.

The cook for that meal, George, was a warmhearted and friendly man in his seventies. He was well versed in how to enact the ritual. He bowed once—ding. He bowed twice—ding. And he bowed a third time—ding! But something went horribly wrong; when he stood up from his third bow, his sweatpants dropped from his waist and went down to his feet. George stood briefly and bravely in his underwear, in front of Buddha and all retreatants. When he realized that his pants were no longer in place, he scooped them up, pulled them back on, and hurried out of the zendo without stopping to enjoy lunch.

My first reaction was to pretend that George’s pants had not fallen off, so I could begin serving the food without further incident—let’s cover up what is uncomfortable because I have a schedule to keep. But I looked up to find the center’s founding teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi, seated at the front of the room, convulsed with laughter—contagious laughter. And so, I stopped pretending that I hadn’t seen George’s pants fall off when he was bowing, and I began to laugh, too. Since I was carrying the food with both hands, ceremonially, to the front of the room, I couldn’t stop to wipe my eyes or nose—liquid from these orifices was streaming down my face. The thought of my dripping face only made me laugh more. Now everyone to whom I served food began to laugh—whether or not they had seen George’s pants fall off. 

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