Saturday, September 11, 2021

The beginning of the academic year: thoughts on how to become more intentional

 This past week, the academic year started again. It's very interesting to suddenly see so many students from all over the world again in Groningen, which is usually very quiet in Summer. I even taught my first in-person lecture since the Fall of last year! It was so wonderful to see how motivated the students were to be at an in-person lecture again, and in contrast to last year, this year they automatically engaged in social distancing even when it was not formally required (last year it was formally required and yet students had a lot of trouble with the distancing).

Directing my life by being more intentional. Picture by Anna van der Meijden (https://www.instagram.com/annamaypinephotography/)

At the beginning of the year, I was reflecting a lot on my intention, prompted in part by the #Lojongchallenge slogan 39 "Do everything with a single intention," but also prompted by several podcasts. First the Lojong slogan: this refers to constantly checking your intention for whether it is altruistic, or whether on the other hand you are doing or saying something to strengthen your ego. According to the Buddhist teachings, you should try to emphasize the benefit of others over strengthening your own ego, because only focus on others will make you sustainably happy. There is also some scientific evidence for that. For example, I found that when you think about whether a personality word describes you, this distracts you much more from remembering things than when you are thinking about something more neutral such as objects. I think the reason for this is that such thoughts about yourself tap into your hopes and fears, and may even lead to quite "sticky" rumination processes. For this reason I find it very helpful to check my intention regularly, especially at the beginning and end of the working day. Rather than focusing on worrying about my own success, I set my intention to be of benefit for others, and just do my best, and this gives me a lot of peace. 

Now back to the podcasts! In one podcast, Houston Ballet's Harper Watters talked about the importance of not just taking a ballet class "mechanically", following the teacher's instructions, but rather, to take charge by setting a focus on what you want to work on. Then take the teacher's corrections that are helpful and leave the other ones. Kathryn Morgan had another useful video in which she suggested actively reviewing corrections and then deciding on the most important ones, and making a schedule for when to focus on fixing what issue. Finally, Julie Gill has a fascinating podcast in which she decomposes ballet into different skills and suggests that it is very difficult to learn all these skills in a general ballet class. To progress, you have to decide to focus on specific subtopics, and where necessary seek specific training for that. This inspired me to seek out specific pointe classes at Julie's online studio Broche ballet to focus on those specific skills as an add-on to the regular ballet classes, where we understandably don't have the time to engage in focused practice of specific parts of pointe technique.

Reflecting on my intentions. Picture by Anna van der Meijden (https://www.instagram.com/annamaypinephotography/)

The final step is to bring this back to my working life. The Spring semester was ridiculously busy, and not fun. So at the beginning of this academic year, I am trying to figure out a way to be more intentional with how I spend my time. One part of this is that I schedule half an hour once a week to reflect on what my priorities are, and to review my time logs, and whether those are in line with my priorities. Another part of this is that to ensure that I spend enough time on what is important, I already block off time to work on these important tasks so they cannot be taken over by meetings (with an apology to all the people who want to meet with me, which now has become more difficult...). It is hard work to maintain your intention so that your work and life can be of actual benefit, but I think also so important...


Sunday, August 15, 2021

How Iceland made me lose my computer but find a way to think through movement and dance

In the past week I attended a summer school on embodied critical thinking, which is part of an Erasmus project in which I am a member. It was a remarkable experience, in which I found new ways to connect the part of myself that is a dancer with the part of myself that is an academic. Moreover, it was my first travel outside the country since Covid-19 hit. The summer school took place in the beautiful country of Iceland, a place where I had never been before. The nature and culture of Iceland were awe-inspiring, which very much complemented the power of the summer school. So what is embodied critical thinking? 



This is a method used--Thinking at the Edge--was developed by a philosopher by the name of Eugene Gendlin, who felt that thinking should not just be in the head but also make use of the wisdom of the body. This is probably something we all use to some extent--when we have a "gut feeling"--but we are never too conscious of it. In thinking at the Edge, you bring your attention to it, and you take the time and space to explore what your body has to say. By doing this, you can often find surprising things. I think the reason it's called "critical thinking" is that it does not take the meaning of concepts as a given, but instead invites you to further explore what concepts may have as hidden meanings, and to inform them with your life experiences to find new connections. An important question that is often being asked is "is there more?", and this is particularly asked when you observe a bodily reaction. As such, the practice demands a lot of tuning into the body. Thinking at the edge consists of a series of 12 steps-exercises if you will, that allow you to investigate the topic you want to think about from many different angles and in many different ways. A very important concept is the "felt sense", which is the feeling in your body of you consider the thing you are thinking about. Rather than paying attention to whether the words are intellectually "correct", one asks whether the words evoke the right feeling, or image. Because of the focus on imagery, there is a possibility to explore new meanings of the topic we are thinking about. This is further expanded on by going over your notes again and again to deepen your understanding.

In my case, I chose to focus on the topic of what embodied critical thinking is and how we can understand it from a cognitive perspective. Rather than going straight into conceptual thinking, the process allowed me to investigate the feeling dimension of this question, which was very interesting and surprising (one of the sentences I wrote, for example, is "the fabric of the spiderweb is space"). A lot of work is done with a partner, who listens to you (usually for luxurious amounts of time, such as 30-40 minutes) and helps you clarify your thinking, but also brings your attention to the bodily dimension. For example, they may say that they noticed that you really started to physically connect to and make lots of gestures when you came to a particular point. To facilitate this process, there was lots of time for silence, and an absence of judgment. The week started even with the announcement that we did not need to feel like we needed to produce something in this time. To further facilitate this, we were also encouraged to do a lot of writing on paper, journalling and carefully writing down what our partner said, and to let go of our computer (more about that in a little bit). I helped out a bit by guiding some movement exercises to help people connect their body and literally dance with their ideas. It was such a gift to be in this caring and spacious environment for a week!
watching the view at the Blue Lagoon site (the blue comes from the silica in the water). Picture by Dorothe Bach)
On top of the exercises from the twelve-step process we went through, we also had various excursions in which we connected to the magnificent nature of Iceland. During my bicycle tour on the first day, I learnt that Iceland is called the land of fire and ice, and its landscapes are largely shaped by volcanic activity. This roughness and wildness yields a very dramatic and awe-inspiring landscape, which helped me to drop the self-focus a bit and instead just be. Moreover, the rocks and volcanoes just have so much space! A further daily connection to nature was provided by the hot springs--just like the Icelandic people I went to the hot pools every day (water comes up right from the ground and is then captured in pools that are spread all across the city of Reykjavik where we stayed). I feel that as you go in the water at the various temperatures (switching between hot and cold baths) it is such a good way to connect to your body and feel what it needs.
being in awe with the volcano behind me (picture by Dorothe Bach)
Now the disconnection from my usual "heady" state in which I am on my computer all the time was further facilitated by an event on the first day, when I was guiding a movement exercise on the beach. We found a beautiful place with lots of rocks to stand on and some grassy patches, and move to the sounds of the wind and the water. I had found a lovely grassy patch to put my laptop bag on while I was guiding the exercise. At the end of the exercise I returned to my back, only to find it standing in a puddle of water, as the tide had been rising while I was--happily unaware--guiding the exercise, standing on a nearby rock. Obviously there was no way I could have any chance at using my computer, since i had to let it dry for at least two days (as I found out from a computer store where I went the next day). And I am writing this on a new computer since sadly my computer never woke up again. The whole episode was a beautiful lesson though, because it made me realize I could actually function without a computer for a little while (especially since a colleague kindly allowed me to use hers for some meetings I needed to do). I was also stunned at my own reaction, which never was one of fear or panic, but simply just ready to go with whatever was. The environment was that spacious! (especially after a few days of vacation that I took in Iceland before the summer school, and especially realizing that an injury is so mch worse).
the place on the coast where I held my movement exercise and my laptop drowned
The last, and very important, lesson from the summer school was that there is a way to bring movement more explicitly into my academic life, and that I have something to offer there. As we went through the twelve-step Thinking at the Edge process, my partner made me realize that expressing through movement and dance, and at the same time being in the academy, is a unique gift I have, which may be of benefit to enrich people's thinking but also strengthen their resilience. So while I started with a project on the cognitive effect of thinking at the edge, I ended up with important realizations about my life and ideas for how to redirect it to bring my dancing and my academic work closer together--a process I started many years ago with Edan Gorlicki in his Unblocked Project.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

One step forward, one step back: lessons from an injured ankle

It's been quite a while since I last posted. I have been extremely busy with teaching and supervising students in the last few months. On top of that, I have been struggling with an injury in my ankle that made it difficult for me to do ballet. Since ballet is one of my main outlets at this time, that has been quite a challenge. Ballet is not just exercise for me, but a way to express myself and my emotions.

I am not quite sure how the injury came about. It's probably some inflammation that resulted from overuse. Every time I came down from standing on my toes (which you do a lot in ballet...) I would feel a tremendous sharp pain. I had been feeling it for a while, but then it got really acute in March while I was running. As a result, I took it a bit easier for a few days, but then I had an online performance, which I still did because it was so special. Ever since, I have been trying to figure out a way to do something like ballet while still allowing my ankle to recover. Now it's July and I have not yet fully recovered. But finally this week I started to feel substantially better. I have taken off another week from doing any ballet, and this helped a lot (in the intermediate months I would just avoid the movements that caused pain, but clearly that was not good enough). This blog lays out some strategies i used to deal with this challenging situation and lessons I learned.

floorbarre


The first thing I learnt was that I had to accept that I had an injury rather than trying to work through the pain, as I usually do. What consoled me a lot was the first noble truth proclaimed by the Buddha: that life is suffering. Sometimes suffering comes your way, and that is a natural part of life, it's not like you are doing something wrong. And it's OK to feel frustrated and sad about that for a while. This situation also made me realize that while I am incredibly active, I am also getting older, and maybe my body cannot always keep up with my desires.

zhemfit abs challenge
Secondly, I needed to focus on what I could do, rather than what I could not do. When I paid too much attention to the things I could not do, I got very frustrated. When I managed to instead refocus on other things, I felt more fulfilled. I made use of the time to work on learning how to better turn my legs out, to get to know my core muscles better, and to figure out how to use my calves rather than my feet to point my toes. It is invaluable to do floorbarre classes in which you do ballet exercises on the floor rather than standing up--a great suggestion by my wonderful ballet teacher Wanda Kuiper. My favourites are a DVD by Stephane Dalle, and youtube videos by Hikaru Kobayashi and Joy Womack. I was also very grateful for the #21dayszhemfitabschallenge, a series of classes to get to train your abs (the other zhemfit classes are also pretty great and useful for dancers and non-dancers alike). I had never figured out this whole "core thing", and now I feel like I can finally feel how to use my ab muscles, and moreover, these classes result in visible changes to your body, which is very rewarding. As I was dabbling with various youtube fitness classes, I also realized how annoyed I get when I see all these fitness influencers not stretching their legs and pointing their toes, so I became quite a fan of Maria Khoreva's workouts (Maria Khoreva is a first soloist with the Maryinski theatre). Another thing I discovered about doing these workouts is that I could use them as mind-training as well: as much as possible, I try to do them with an attitude of loving kindness for myself and others, especially when they are a bit painful: just sending kindness into the world with each repetition.

The third lesson is one that has been my mantra throughout this pandemic: just to focus on one day at a time, rather than speculating about this future that is exceedingly uncertain. This has been particularly true with my ankle: while it is now substantially better, it may also get worse again and I don't know how long it will take to finally heal. And in this process I have to balance giving my body time to heal with my mental need for dancing. A few days ago I went back to a ballet barre after not dancing for a week to finally let me ankle heal, and it was just so joyful! (see videos below) So we keep going, one day at a time...





Sunday, April 04, 2021

Using a kind heart to overcome your competitive mind

Lojong slogan 38 says "Don't seek other's pain as the limbs of your own happiness." This refers in simple words to schadenfreude: being happy when someone else is not doing well. Or maybe even making a nasty remark when they don't look so good. I think we often do that when we don't feel good in ourselves. When we put others down, this makes us feel superior. But does it really do so on the long-term? I think that the more we develop such thoughts, the more we also start to feel unwell in ourselves because we create this need in ourselves to constantly be better than others.

Picture by Anna van der Meijden (
https://www.instagram.com/annamaypinephotography/)


I found it very helpful to combat these feelings with increasing my own compassion and kindness towards myself. Because if I feel good in myself, then there is no need to depend on comparison to others to feel better. Even more, I find that there is sufficient kindness to share with others as well. Indeed, scientific research shows that self-compassion reduces rumination, depression and anxiety https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-019-01134-6 


So how do you do this? For me a very simple way to practise kindness and compassion for myself is to repeat the phrases "may I be well, may I be safe, may I live with ease" to myself, in a very spacious way. Really, you deserve to be happy. Doing this in formal meditation is really powerful, but even if you can do it at random moments in everyday life already helps. I then often find that I naturally extend this to others as well.


These practices can also be connected to the body while exercising. This is an interesting challenge because often I have more of a feeling of pushing my body during ballet class or running, and instead considering my body with an attitude of kindness completely changes how I relate to my body. This feeling of kindness towards myself then also makes my body much more pliable and cooperative. I also enjoy simply wishing well to people while I am running. Also that really changes my perception and feeling completely.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Reflections on Sogyal Rinpoche and circumstances that allow for abuse to arise in Buddhist teachers in general

  Introduction

A few months ago I participated in a documentary by Jaap Verhoeven that investigates the situation around Sogyal Rinpoche, my Buddhist teacher, who has been accused of physical, psychological and sexual abuse--which was later corroborated by an independent investigation--and who passed away about 1.5 years ago. Now mentioning "abuse" and "my teacher" in the same sentence may seem confusing, but in this blog I hope to show you how it is not that simple.


Participating in the documentary intense interview which lasted about 3.5 hours, but of course only a few minutes made it to the documentary. The documentary came out in the Netherlands a month ago, and very recently also internationally. Although the documentary I think does a good job at looking at the situation from several different angles, I feel like it lacks a bit of analysis of the complex circumstances that ked to this situation. Of course you can only do so much in the space of 1.5 hours. Nevertheless, in this blog I would like to share more of my reflections on this topic, because I feel like we are not done with it yet--it is a very challenging problem for Buddhism and for society at large. I do not claim I have the wisdom, but hopefully after having wrestled with these questions for a few years I would like to share my thoughts in a bit more detail than what was shown in the documentary.

The documentary starts with the interviewees discussing what brought them to Sogyal Rinpoche. In my case, I read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, written by Sogyal Rinpoche, and it completely swept me off my feet: this was such a clear and accessible introduction into Buddhism that gave me practical tools for handling my emotions. And it still does, even to this day. Over the years of receiving his teachings, I have also developed a strong connection several of his teachers, including Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche. This moves me even now to tears. Studying and practising in his organization Rigpa has given me tremendous meaning in my life, and a fundamental trust in the goodness of the buddha nature that underlies all of life and death. This trust has been fundamental to me developing some degree of self-confidence and fearlessness, and a sense of just being OK in myself. It should also be mentioned that over the years, Sogyal Rinpoche was able to inspire thousands of students to put in tremendous efforts in building outer and inner temples. And even though the latest scandals have been painful, they have also been a tremendous teacher for myself and many others I know. In the spirit of gratitude for all I have received I think it is important to write this piece: to investigate what I think is going on, and to also think about how we can move on so more people can benefit from the tremendous good things that Sogyal Rinpoche has brought, while preventing the bad things that have clearly happened from occurring.

I think one of the most inspiring things that Sogyal Rinpoche did is connecting his students to great teachers. Here is a wonderful example.


Analysis

The first thing that I think is very important to point out is that abuse by teachers takes place in many high-pressure situations. The intense student-teacher relationship that is crucial for Tibetan Buddhism is one such example, but similar situations have been reported in academia, ballet, as well as gymnastics, to name a few. All of these situations are characterized by a strong power imbalance and a tremendous dedication on the part of typically both student and teacher to what is being studied. A very interesting video on this topic in the domain of ballet is a talk by Theresa Ruth Howard who compares ballet to a cult. So it is too simple to blame it all on a single teacher individual--a large part of it is the culture around it that allows abuse to happen.

Another factor is that in an effort to push the student beyond their limitations, teachers sometimes resort to harsh means. I haven't quite figured out whether this is good or not. I know that in my experience a mild version of this has worked: I remember one day my ballet teacher was yelling at me for not remembering the combination properly, which occurred because I was completely exhausted. But these remarks still made me able to remember the combinations and really pay attention to an extent that I did not think possible. In an interesting film about this topic, Whiplash, the teacher says that he uses methods of physical and psychological abuse because he does not want to deprive the world of the artistic talents of the student, which needs to be cultivated through an amount of blood, sweat and tears that is almost not humanly possible. On the other hand, we never hear about the students in such systems that drop out and may be damaged for life, and never love their art/spirituality/science anymore because of these abusive experiences. Would a good teacher know what students can be pushed without serious damage? Would the student know what they get into before they enter such a relationship, as Dzongsar Khyentse suggests for Vajrayana?

Another relation consideration is that the position of a spiritual teacher in general is very challenging. A book that lays this out very eloquently is Sex and the spiritual teacher. The spiritual teacher is in a very lonely position, and has tremendous power that is not kept much in check. They often do not have equals to check in with and they are subject to many students that adore them and project all kinds of things on them. In addition, they have a tremendous opportunity to make use of their students, exactly because their students adore them. Finally, they have sexual drives, like every human, and all the people around them are typically their students. This makes it difficult to have equal sexual relationships. Of course these are not justifications for sexual misconduct and abuse, but at the same time, they make it a bit more understandable.

A further contributor to the arising of this situation is that given the same situation, different individuals can have wildly different perceptions of it. This is a fundamental principle of cognition that is also known as predictive perception. We never perceive anything as neutral, but constantly make predictions about what we will see, hear, and so on, and these color these perceptions. I think we can all see that happen in the current pandemic, where people who do not believe in COVID seem to almost be living in an alternate reality. A good article that goes into these cognitive biases is this.  Similarly, I feel that the experiences people have about Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa of the very same situation are wildly different, likely due to the cognitive biases with which they perceived the situation.

In the context of Rigpa, when I believed that Sogyal Rinpoche was a fantastic teacher, I was blind to his faults. Moreover, whenever I had any doubts, I felt I should not focus on those and instead give the situation a chance, because maybe these were special methods from Tibetan culture. How can I know what is the best way of teaching? And this was further reinforced by people who were humiliated publically, and then confessed that it helped them work with their minds and through their traumas. From the stories we have heard now in the investigation report and beyond, it seems like this was often a bit too optimistic. But I think we all wanted to believe it. This was further reinforced by reactions of Sogyal Rinpoche and the people around him on the scandals: they were attributed to people not understanding what a profound thing he was doing. According to this explanation, their mind was not spiritual enough and they were too much into their worldly concerns. With the knowledge I have today I think this was a very harmful tactic.

While I do not exclude the possibility that a teacher can use seemingly abusive techniques to help the student go beyond their blockages, I think that in that case it is the teacher's job to know whether it is helping or harming the student. A famous example that is often cited here is that of Marpa and Milarepa: Marpa made his student go through tremendous hardships but eventually Milarepa became one of the most amazing saints. But Milarepa was just one out of many students, and here is seems like dozens if not hundreds of students have been suffering from abuse. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has also mentioned in an assembly of Western teachers that such "crazy wisdom" only becomes relevant when the teacher him- or herself also shows tremendous obvious realization such as being able to fly or walk through walls.

A final thought that is relevant to the analysis of the situation is the idea that a genius in one domain cannot be at the same time completely dysfunctional in another domain, which was evident for example in the case of Harvey Weinstein or Michael Jackson. I think seeing that this is possible has been one of the most important lessons of the current situation for me. In my mind, Sogyal Rinpoche was able to impart some tremendous wisdom onto his students, but at the same time also had some very dysfunctional aspects to his personality, that were probably also amplified by the people surrounding him, rather than being reduced. For example, I can easily imagine that himself being brought up by a teacher who beats students, it was easy for him to think that this is a good way of teaching, even though in the context of the West at this time, it is not really (and there is a lot of scientific evidence that also supports that point). Then if those closely around him did not strongly counter that this did not work, probably made these practices going from bad to worse. This is often a mechanism at play: first a person does something somewhat questionable, such as making an inappropriate remark. The next time, they go a little further, maybe giving them a soft slap, and before you know it, it has become normal to abuse.

What can we do? (some initial ideas)

First of all, I think it is helpful to start with apologies--acknowledging things have gone wrong, so there is a space for making amends (as we also learn in the Vajrasattva teachings). I myself am sorry for believing in the system and not standing up when people were being publically humiliated, for not asking further when they said they were OK after this experience (I must emphasized here that I myself never had any bad experiences with Sogyal Rinpoche). While we can not change the past, we can learn from it to prevent such harm from occurring in the future. Maybe one idea would be to make amends by for example establishing a fund to help those who were harmed get therapy.

In terms of learning, I think various things can be changed. First of all, something that already has been happening in Rigpa and could be further strengthened is moving towards a more democratic leadership model. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been very much supporting this movement in Tibetan society (see for example his comments in this movie). Really giving space to many different voices and debate can help prevent abusive situations because those tend to arise when no-one dares to speak up or question behaviours. There is some movement towards that in Rigpa, where the different national organizations are now a federation, rather than being governed by a single teacher at the top. Moreover, there is no single teacher anymore who decides things, but rather a group who give advice to another group of Rigpa leaders. Of course this is still not perfect because those groups can be still engaging in group-think, but it is certainly better than the more dictatorial system there was before.

On top of that, maybe it can also be helpful that in every Buddhist sangha, there are a few members from another, closely-related sangha (e.g., in the context of Rigpa, this would be members of the sanghas of Tsoknyi Rinpoche or Mingyur Rinpoche or Khandro Rinpoche). They would not be students of the main teacher and instead they would be there to observe the student-teacher dynamics and ask questions when the group dynamics go from healthy devotion to group pressure and abusive situations. I think this kind of an inside-outside voice would have enough grounding in the tradition but also not be as bound to the teacher as to be blinded. More communication between sanghas can go a long way, I think.
On top of this I think we all need to be trained in tools for intervening in questionable situations, for example through active bystander training.

We should also stop with the reasoning that "if you cannot take this, you are not spiritually advanced enough"--a storyline that has been held--often implicitly--in Rigpa. This kind of a story is not taking people seriously and undermining them, a situation referred to as "gaslighting". This prevents people from feeling safe, and also from voicing their dissent, which then means that they then cannot indicate it when a particular teaching method does not work for them. In this way, even if the teacher has the best of intentions, they cannot get proper feedback about what works for the student.
 
Finally, I think that despite everything, the practice of guru devotion is a very powerful one. I hope that it will be possible to have a very honest and heartfelt discussion about how it can be practised in a Western context without engaging in spiritual bypassing and losing our own ground. I would love for such a conversation to be really taking place from a ground of practice, not just intellectual reasoning. I imagine a retreat where we practice meditation and guru yoga, and then have open dialogues about these topics: what does the practice mean? Where are the dangers? How can we hold the authentic lineage but also create an environment that is as safe as possible? I think there are no clear-cut answers here, but I am sure we will make progress if we put our heads and hearts in it.

May these thoughts  be a little help in maintaining this precious tradition while also preventing more suffering, and may it open the dialogue on how to continue. I apologize in advance for all the hurt this writing may cause. It is my sincere attempt at making sense of the situation and thinking about how we can move forward to address this problem--because it is not new, and not unique to Rigpa, as is also mentioned in the documentary and many things that have been written about it--so now is a chance to learn.

PS. Two resources that also informed my thinking were: How did it happen blog, the book Fallout by Thalia Newland. I don't necessarily agree with everything that was written in these resources but it did help shape my thinking.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

What are you longing for?

This was the main question that pervaded this past weekend, while I attended the Mind and Life Europe retreat, led by Martijn van Beek and Hanneli Agotsdatter. It was quite an amazing experience. The retreat was a contemplative way of reflecting on how we lead our lives as academics and practitioners. It was one of the most wonderful things I have done in a long time. There is nothing as joyful as pursuing something meaningful, even when it is hard. Let me share some aspects of the experience.


We started on Friday night with gentle meditation and yoga exercises, after which Martijn gave a short lecture on the idea of a "vita contemplativa", a contemplative life. This idea is about how we can bring a spiritual dimension into everything we do, not just a few minutes of meditation or mindfulness on the cushion. We ended the evening with a beautiful meditation practice in which we virtually connected our hearts to the middle of the earth and to each other.


The next morning, we continued with the meditation and yoga practices, but then deepened the contemplation into a question that was quite a bombshell: what am I really longing for? And in addition to that, what are my talents and on the other hand the things that I would like to cultivate. I realized that I had neglected this question about longing--being in a stable job for the last ten years. But also in my spiritual life, it is so easy to just get stuck with the practices you are doing, instead of thinking about why you are doing those. It is so easy to get caught up in the doing mode, rather than being aware of why you are doing those things and focus a bit more on the being mode. During the retreat we did quite a few journalling exercises to ponder these questions, and then we shared with each other in breakout rooms.


I was blown away by the wisdom in the group. I had many insights driven by these conversations. One of the things I was thinking about was that while I love ballet practice dearly, the physical feats achieved by this will never last. The only thing that is a meaningful product out of this pursuit is the mental work. But that in itself is not to be underestimated. Metaphorically, it allows me to connect with the wisdom in my body, and to dance with the open questions in my life.


In the afternoon of the second day, we had a good conversation about how to put these things into practice in our everyday work life. Stefano Poletti and myself got the precious opportunity to share our paths. It was amazing to reflect on what I have done over the years, and to realize the wealth of experiences I have had the chance to accumulate.


On the last day, we then brought back this richness of experience into the daily life. How can we continue this? For myself, I would like to really bring a few minutes of meditation practice in the middle of my day so I get the space to see what is going on, and tune in with any gaps that may be occurring (that is my personal biggest gap). I also hope I will be able to remind myself of loving kindness in the many meetings I have during the day, to make these contemplative values more of a continuum. Finally, I think I need to do this practice more often, and especially to do a short retreat to reflect on what projects I need to let go of, because I tend to overcommit myself. As Gabor Karsai wisely said: we tend to focus on the things we produce, but fail to notice the side effects of these productions--the effects on our health, the effects on our family that is ignored and so on. I ended with the reflection that when you are running too fast, you may miss the goal or the point of it all. Hopefully writing this down will help me to remember this a bit better.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Saying goodbye to 2020

I am writing this on January 1st, 2021. Who would have thought how our lives have changed over the past year! In the beginning of 2020, I still had a whole lot of travel lined up, going back to India to work with my Tibetan monk colleagues from Sera Jey monastic university, giving a ballet performance in India, and more. And here we are: I have never been as long home as in the past year. I am giving talks, lessons and even ballet performances from my living room, attending conferences and summer schools virtually, and also organizing quite a few of them.

Picture by Anna van der Meijden (https://www.instagram.com/annamaypine/?hl=en) 

The year started with a wonderful trip to Vienna, to attend a Mind & Life Europe vision meeting, at which time the first news about a virus from China started to emerge, which was also starting to wreak havoc in Italy. Now my brother lived in Italy at the time, not far from Milan, and I had planned to visit him at the beginning of March. Until the last moment I was debating whether I should visit him, because I was afraid they would close of the area and I would get stuck. In a leap of faith, I ended up still going, and it was the weirdest journey in my life. I have never seen airports that quiet. I have never been as careful about hygiene as then, wearing gloves in public places and washing my hands properly for the first time in my life. I made it out successfully, and then entered a very stressful phase of my life, because I suddenly was shunned by people for being a virus risk. I was surprised at how much this affected me--I think maybe because it brought back painful childhood memories in which I used to be shunned by my classmaters and always be an outsider.

By the time my possibly infectioous time had finished, the country entered lockdown and life changed again. Everything suddenly was online, and because I live alone, this meant that most of the time my only contact with "real people" would be my grocery shopping and my weekly runs with Stefani Nellen (who is the best storyteller ever!). Yet, at the same time, this also brought me a lot: I realized how interconnected we all are by the internet. Because now all the ballet classes were online, I started to reconnect with dear teachers in India and the USA. This was incredibly inspiring. Also, seeing the amount of creativity in the arts sector, which immediately started to offer ballet classes online on instagram and youtube, was stunning. I have also watched live-streamed performances, which were surprisingly wonderful. I even watched while live-commenting on it through WhatsApp conversations with a friend.

I also felt very much connected to my friends and family in other countries (despite the fact that for the first time in my life borders became a thing). I never really felt alone, maybe because I was talking to my computer all day ;-) For the first time in years I started calling my parents regularly, and that renewed connection has been gratifying. On top of that, the covid situation has made my awareness of impermanence much more embodied. Never yet has life changed so quickly. One day you can be giving a ballet performance, the next day you can enter a lockdown. I am grateful for how daily reflections on impermanence in the context of my Buddhist practice have already prepared me for that a little, but still, the understanding has significantly deepened in the past year.

Another treasure given to me by 2020 is learning many new skills. I love learning things (which is why I enjoy being an academic). Pivoting teaching online means that you have to completely reorganize your teaching, which is at once exciting and time-consuming. On top of that, student supervision has become more time-consuming, because understandably each of them was struggling with a whole life placed upside-down, so I felt like a counsellor at times. Nevertheless, this was also rewarding, because I felt like I could actually do something. 

I felt tremendously grateful for my Buddhist practice, which had already prepared me for dealing with change, and encouraged me to look for meaning within, rather than outside. As my Tibetan monk colleagues said at the beginning of the pandemic: now is not the time to travel outside, now is the time to travel inside. Wise words indeed. Now of course this is easy for me to say, because I still have a job, and I am already fairly introverted, so staying at home was not too difficult. This is a nice moment to bring to mind the next slogan in the #lojongchallenge: slogan 37 says "don't make gods into demons." It is really important to ensure that your Buddhist practice does not make you more proud. So, I am not writing this to show off. Just like everyone else, I am muddling around, but i do find that reconnecting with the fundamental goodness of my buddha nature, and the buddha nature of all beings helps me to maintain meaning in the midst of the change and chaos that 2020 created.

So, I would like to end this blog by remembering that while 2020 brought many challenges and completely changed everyone's life, it also brought new opportunities: I learnt a lot, I developed a solid ballet practice at home, I connected with people across the globe in my work, Buddhist practice and ballet, and went back to the essence of life. I hope that in the new year, I will be able to continue learning, remember to take moments to remember gratitude, and continue to connect to people across the globe, online and hopefully also in-person. All my best wishes for the new year!