I Hear You

“To be loved means to be recognized as existing.” Thich Nhat Hanh

I spotted these two flyers posted to a fence around a large construction site in Berlin, Kreuzberg.

I was touched deeply by the messages “I hear you” and “I’ll help you.” Doesn’t it just feel wonderful when someone says these words to us in a moment of suffering?

May we remember that we can give the gift of listening to anyone almost any time and for free! And by listening with an open, nonjudgmental heart we are already helping. To improve our listening we can make it more intentional. We can ground ourselves by feeling the earth beneath our feet or the chair we are sitting on. We can breathe slowly in and out and follow our breathing as we deeply sense the unwavering support of our Mother Earth. And from this centeredness we can begin listening. Whatever is being said to us, we can now receive it with appreciation even if it includes words of criticism or accusation. While listening to someone share feelings of hurt or anger, we can practice staying grounded, present and connected to our compassionate heart. In this way we are bringing healing to the person or the situation.

What is more, we can give this gift to ourselves. We can learn to be present for ourselves and remind us that we are okay the way we are. The process is similar. We ground and center ourselves and turn our attention to our body sensations, which may include stress, anxiety and tension. The moment we tune into how our body is feeling we have already begun listening. We are saying “I hear you” and “I will help you” to our body. And we may soon feel a sense of relief. Similarly, we can tune into our emotions and embrace them, too, with our mindful and compassionate heart. We can attentively hold space for our hurt, worry, depression or anger and light up this space with the warm light of compassion. We can even make a promise to take good care of all our emotions.

The longer I live, the more I come to the realization that 99 percent of my suffering result not from things that happen to me but from a recurring and habitual state of disconnectedness from myself and others. To me, this realization holds a huge promise for a happier, healthier and less consumption-driven life. And it reminds me to pause, again and again, to practice “I hear you. I will help you.”

Thanks to the person who posted this teaching on a wall in Kreuzberg.

It’s All Here

“‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ because, if not at hand, it is nowhere.” (Wendell Berry*)

My farmer heart felt fuzzy warm last weekend when some 170 tractors of all shapes and sizes rolled through the streets of Berlin. They had come from across the region as part of a large-scale demonstration for a new, healthier agriculture. Framed by 35,000 people in attendance, these tractors — and the smiling, radiant faces behind their wheels — symbolized something that is rare and precious in any large city: a reminder that the gift of a satisfying, peaceful and rewarding life is a gift lovingly granted by Mother Earth.

From my perch atop the slow-moving trailer belonging to a national agricultural nonprofit, I had the opportunity to see hundreds of marchers and I was touched by the positive energy, the smiles, the strength and the courage written on their faces. It had been a while since I had been exposed to this energy and finding it right here in the city made this experience even more special.

A couple days later I am still feeling this energy inside of me, stirring me, talking to me and asserting itself once again as a guide. It is a familiar guide whose voice I have been hearing throughout my life and who really began talking to me twenty years ago when, together with my wife at the time, I built my first vegetable farm in West-Central Missouri, USA. It has spoken to me about what it means to be at home, not in a country or a culture but in my body which is inseparable from the whole of nature and the universe. To me, this experience of home is possible only in the present moment and though it is possible to access it right here in the city, it is much easier to do so when I’m in nature.

Over the years as a farmer, I have come to see nature as a special doorway to equanimity and peace. The stories she tells — of birth and death and rebirth, of the interconnected web of all things, of turning wastes into an abundant harvest — these are stories of a beautiful home, a safe and welcoming home where I can truly arrive and become everything I am capable of being. This home is always available inside of me. I am called to it each time the wind is brushing against my face, each time I feel the warm earth under my bare feet or rest my body against a tree after preparing the fields for planting. I am called to it when I feel exhausted from the to-do list and my mind turns farming (or whatever else I am doing) into a punishment, when I drift into wanting another life of different comforts and diversions which never seem to satisfy for very long. In these moments of joy and pain I am called home to discover the incomparable beauty of the present, to connect with all life around me and to touch peace.

I am very grateful to the organic and sustainable farmers who came to Berlin last weekend with smiles and confidence nourished by Mother Earth. They helped me remember my path toward inner peace and happiness. I would like to honor them and all the world’s farmers with a poem. I recorded this poem some years ago for a radio program in Kansas City, USA. I cannot recall the author’s name, so if you know it, please share it with me so that I can give her credit. And thanks for listening.

It’s All Here – read by Daniel Dermitzel — if you know the author’s name, please share.

(*) from “Wendell Berry on Climate Change: To Save the Future, Live in the Present” Yes! Magazine, March 23, 2015.

A Diamond In My Pocket

I passed him one morning outside a friend’s apartment. Though I was walking quickly to get to my next appointment, his beautiful appearance didn’t escape me and I felt nourished by it for the rest of the day. My life has been a plateful lately — my ongoing adjustment to living and working in Germany and now also to Berlin’s housing crunch have been doing a bit of a number on me. Practicing mindfulness has been an important part of dealing with my anxious and worried thoughts. Indeed, I sense that any storms blowing through my life are directing me to a deeper practice, a further wakefulness and an inner calm accessible in the present moment.

I am reminded of a dharma talk I once heard about a “Diamond in my Pocket,” the diamond being our ability to instantly drop the story we tell ourselves which causes us to suffer. It takes just one or two breaths, or as the case may be, the sight of a Buddha sitting by the road, to shift attention from our worried thoughts to the sensations of our body, which almost always tell a different story, don’t they? Usually a much less dramatic and less urgent one. Through this shift of attention, we bring mind and body back together, connect with the present moment, and step out of the world constructed by our habitual thoughts, emotions and identifications, into a world of discernment, acceptance, wisdom and greater peace. We all carry this diamond in our pockets. May we remember to pull it out often.

Light, Shadow & Reflection

Rays of autumn sun momentarily light up the ceiling of this underground stop.

Walking up the stairs, I pause. I am mindful of the gifts of light, shadow and reflection. The #everydaybeauty of this world reveals itself if we remember to be present for it.

Our Earth, Our Self

This is a slightly edited version of a post first published February 22, 2016 at plumvillage.org.

Planting cucumbers at Plum Village Happy Farm

As we enter the first days of spring here in Plum Village in south-west France, we’d like to share with you the story of a small project called The Happy Farm.

This small organic vegetable farm, which has only been in existence for three years, grew some €33,000 of fresh organic produce for the monastic and lay community this last season. In addition to producing food, Happy Farm offers a year-long training program in mindful organic agriculture and diverse community living. It also offers retreats on mindfulness and sustainability, and provides tours and educational activities for kids and adults throughout the year.

This story is our reflection on how climate, our food, our community, and our personal healing are all inextricably linked. It is our story of love’s impact on the balance and survival of the whole.

With industrial food production making up a significant share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, we believe that small-scale organic farming can be an important answer to climate change, as it promotes soil health and carbon sequestration and generally uses fewer energy-intensive inputs (such as fuel and synthetic fertilizers).

But a deeper story is unfolding at the Happy Farm —  a story about people falling back in love with each other and with Mother Earth. As people of all walks of life come together and joyfully sink their hands back into the soil — some of them for the first time in many years — they experience a nourishing, heartfelt connection with their brothers and sisters, deepen their understanding of the entire web of life and offer their true presence to Mother Earth. Working the soil in this manner is a bit like caressing the earth and being caressed by her in return.

During their mindful work on the Happy Farm, the interns, volunteers and children are held tenderly by Mother Earth just as they are with all their joys and pains. Without discrimination, Mother Earth welcomes us back, perhaps wondering what took us so long. And so we experience a renewed love for Mother Earth, a renewed connection. We can now experience that the earth is not something outside of us but that she is in us and that we are a part of her. This is not a transformation of the head, but of the heart. It takes root slowly, almost without notice, unfailingly.

Having a renewed love relationship with Mother Earth, we can now see more easily that our energy-intensive life-style and our high levels of consumption are not producing lasting happiness but do great harm by contributing to GHG emissions and other problems. We gradually let go of our habit to consume and begin to experience a deeper nourishment that comes from communion with Mother Earth and experiencing our community of brothers and sisters and all beings. We begin to feel less lonely and a deep appreciation arises for simply being alive. We are hopeful that a new generation of small-scale farmers — many of whom are growing food in cities — will be inspired to turn their work into a mindfulness practice, to turn their farms into places where the harvest is not limited to food but includes spiritual transformation and healing as well, where entire communities can begin to rekindle their love and understanding for Mother Earth not as a separate entity but as a part of ourselves.

Compost for the Heart and Mind

For a year and a half now we have been operating an urban composting project in Berlin Hellersdorf. We get weekly deliveries of rotten veggies from a food bank and mix them with wood chips from a landscaping company. Piles get turned regularly and soon they start to heat up, reaching up to 80 degrees Celsius in some cases. After only a few weeks, what started out as a rotten, smelly mess takes on the feel and aroma of the earthy, rich soil amendment we are hoping to create: compost.

Composting is nature’s way of making use of everything. Nothing gets wasted. Every piece of decaying vegetation and many other “wastes” are welcome in the compost pile. With time these unwanted ingredients are turned into a fresh-smelling nutritious soil amendment, providing the nourishment and fertility for next year’s garden vegetables.

Can we learn to treat the unwanted circumstances, thoughts and emotions we face in our lives as fertilizer for a rich harvest in the next season? Through mindfulness practice we can indeed safely compost these difficulties and transform them into treasures of insight, compassion, happiness and freedom.

These days many city dwellers rarely get to witness the natural decomposition of dead plants or animals. We have sanitized our modern cities to the point where cycles of birth and death have become hidden from us. In many places even leaves falling from trees in parks and yards are swept up and disposed of instead of being left to rot naturally and thereby fertilize the soil right where they landed.

Many of us have adopted a similar sanitation strategy for our minds and hearts. We try to sweep from our inner landscape all difficult thoughts and emotions, such as pain, worry, anger, loneliness and despair. We attempt to dispose of these thoughts and emotions in endless acts of consumption, work, talking, browsing the web or social media, and other activities meant to keep us from feeling them. However, just as raking up leaves deprives a tree of next year’s fertilizer, this approach prevents our difficult thoughts and emotions from being turned into valuable compost.

Needless to say, I think this sanitation strategy isn’t very effective. It requires almost ’round-the-clock inputs in energy, money, time and attention, and, more importantly, it also keeps us from experiencing the healthy fruits of a well-fertilized soil in our hearts and minds.

As an alternative strategy, I suggest meditating on difficult thoughts and emotions to transform them. Through meditation we can see more clearly the ever-changing nature of our outer and inner worlds. We can see that what we considered “bad” may appear as an important step toward something “good.” By courageously looking at ourselves in meditation, we can also see that our own pain is the door to understanding the pain of others, to greater compassion and love for all people.

So, think of meditation and mindfulness practice as a kind of composting: We lovingly gather the ingredients, carefully mix the pile, turn it frequently (with our mind’s attention) until it warms up, and, when finished, spread it onto our fields for a rich and joyful harvest.

Happy composting!

Subway Meditation

One of the best things about living in Berlin is the city’s public transport system. After more than 25 years of commuting almost exclusively by car, I am so grateful to now be riding buses and trains in the company of fellow Berliners and people from around the world. Sometimes while riding the subway I like to practice a meditation that goes something like this:

Breathing in, I see people of all ages, backgrounds and skin colors around me.
Breathing out, I am grateful to be surrounded by such a beautiful and diverse human family.

Breathing in, I look at the faces around me, some smiling, some worried, some tired-looking.
Breathing out, I embrace the smiles, worries and exhaustion on the faces around me.

Breathing in, I am happy that the people around me practice very hard to be of service to their families, neighborhoods, cities and society.
Breathing out, I know they also experience many setbacks, frustration, disappointments, sadness and anger, sometimes causing them to act out their pain.

Breathing in, I am grateful there are so many talented, skilled, dedicated and generous people living in our city.
Breathing out, I bow in gratitude to my fellow passengers for helping keep our city mostly safe, comfortable, interesting and beautiful.

Breathing in, I am sending love to all who are suffering, who may be depressed or in the grip of addiction, who are homeless or feel isolated, who have come as refugees without papers and worry about being deported, who have escaped violence and lost loved-ones, who can’t sleep at night and worry what the future holds.
Breathing out, I pray they may be at peace and I promise to help find ways to ease their suffering.

Breathing in, I wish all the people around me a beautiful day filled with joyful, supportive and loving interactions.
Breathing out, I smile at the people around me.

Subway scene from the 1987 movie “Wings of Desire” (“Himmel über Berlin”)

Testing, testing, one, two, three…

Hi and welcome to the Urban Mindfulness Lab. This is really just a short post to test the blog functionality of this site. But I came across this photo and wanted to share it. I took this pic from the S Bahn in Berlin. The large television tower at Alexanderplatz is seen side by side with a graffiti-painted apartment building. The blurred image reminds me of the important elements of beauty, spaciousness, lack of definition and of surprise that are part of my everyday mindfulness practice. Thanks for stopping by!