Sangha online?

Sangha = a) a spiritual community and b) something I’ve been missing dearly.

Could I find something as intimate as a spiritual community… online?

I’ve been listening to the Interdependence Project’s weekly podcasts, and hearing people talk about Buddhism in the 21st century mentally brings me back to SI and all the wonderful, stimulating conversations we had about the meaning of life – sprinkled with humour and vivacity. I’ve learned a lot about “contemplative practice” over the past year, but as you might be able to tell from that vague description, I don’t atually know that much intellecutally. So, being the nerd that I am, I signed up for the ID Project’s “Hardcore Dharma Summer Series” as a homelistener.

Today, an email from the teacher with the syllabus and expectations of the course excited me. (Actually, come to think of it, much like when I received information about SI, about a year ago.) Yes, homework excited me. Reading! Meditating! Being held accountable! … even if just by the fact that somebody other than myself expects me to read, meditate, and take this course seriously.

More than any of that, I feel encouraged and reinspired to practice because I know that others are in it with me. Community is so, so important to me, and how excited I was about the email to the class list confirmed that for me. Even if I’m not even sharing physical space or even conversation with the people in the class in New York, I feel connected, on some level.

And now, I repeat my seven day meditation vow, which they will repeat each Wednesday in class and I will repeat each Wednesday to myself, outloud, and right now, online for the world to see:

I, Elizabeth Cooper, with confidence in the benefits of a regular practice of sitting meditation, do hereby commit, for myself and no one else [my emphasis], to practicing at least one session of sitting meditation, for as short or as long a period of time as I am willing and able, for each of the next seven days.

I really like what Ethan, the teacher, writes about why we take the vow:

The taking of this vow creates a tangible memory in the mind of the person speaking it. The mind of the vow-taker is tethered to the flagpole of her commitment, bound only by an elastic cord of awareness. Whenever we stray from our vow, may that cord of awareness snap us back—with gentleness and humor—into the space of our practice.


Paralysis of Analysis

My tendancy towards perfectionism seeps into all areas of my life, decisions definitely not excluded.

I listened to a Get-It-Done Guy podcast today which mirrored back to me the hilarity of my general decision-making process:

For example (hypothetical, hah!), imagine the motor in your front- loading washing machine burns out for the sixth time, and you decide to buy a new washer. You call a saleswoman and she recommends an $800 model. But you want to be sure you’re making the right choice. So you demur and research begins.

You subscribe to, you print descriptions of dozens of washers, and compare them feature by feature. You call the store and ask about delivery options and service plans. And you realize you can have your dryer venting cleaned as long as the workmen will be poking around. And, you know, since you’re moving the dryer to get at the duct, maybe you should just buy a new dryer to match the new washer.

Soon, your $800 purchase has become a major renovation. Your research gave you so many overspending opportunities that now you’re spending thousands on an extra appliance, delivery, and duct-cleaning. Oh, yeah–and during the project, you’ll be driving your laundry to the laundromat and spending two hours a week doing laundry in bad lighting.

You just spent hundreds of dollars, twelve hours of research time, six hours of laundromat duty, gas to drive there, and the self-esteem nightmare of laundromat lighting, all because you didn’t want to say “yes” to the saleswoman’s $800 suggestion. When you add it all up, you’d have been way better off just buying the dryer.

Except my decisions are even about smaller purchases, like which sunglasses to buy – or more likely for me – whether to even buy sunglasses in the first place. Sun shmun, let’s save those five dollars! And then my mind goes to the slave labor that probably went into making them. And the evil, profit driven machine (company) which might not treat LGBT employees right, or commit some other transgression against my morals. And the materials taken and transformed from the environment to make the sunglasses! Yes, definitely best not buy them. But then I’d go back and forth. Well, maybe I really do need the sunglasses. Or maybe I don’t. Yes. No. Yes. No. Maybe so… and so even if I end up not buying the sunglasses in order to make the “best” decision, my time, energy, and even emotions have gone to waste.

At SI, one of my good friends Jen, diagnosed this mind-state as the “paralysis of analysis,” and that has been one of those quotations that has definitely stuck with me. As much as living consciously is good, my mind is generally overactive as it is, and I’ve been realizing the importance of paying attention to my witness consciousness as well as my analytic brain. Listening to the part of me that can just observe, without judgment, note when perhaps I’m getting caught up in one of my uneccessarily stressful thought cycles, and give me the opportunity to take a step back and relax.

Then, from this place of relaxation, I can actually make a decision, instead of making plans to research, make a pro-con list, and maybe, eventually, come to an even more unsure decision after sloushing through much “paralysis of analysis.”

Now, maybe after writing about this pattern of mine I can catch myself next time I find myself micromanaging decisions and instead step back, laugh, and flip a coin.

Nuggets of wisdom at graduation

We are bombarded by nuggets of wisdom daily. Or unwanted advice, depending on your relationship to the context, speaker and message.  Regardless of whether you soak up information or reject it, most likely this process is subconscious, unbeknown to you.  Thankfully, with a bit of mindfulness, you can start to become aware of the axioms you chose to guide your life.

Yesterday, my sister’s high school graduation ceremony reminded me about my recent shift in what underlying beliefs I chose to let guide my life. In my high school career, I dedicated myself wholeheartedly to values instilled in me from my American education. Without ever taking a step back to examine what drove me, I unconsciously led my life by the “sheer will and determination” that the keynote speaker espoused last night. The principal, among other speakers, also nailed the point home by telling graduates that “you gotta make it happen, you can’t wait for things to come to you.” (paraphrased)

Hilton Head Island High School Graduation 2009

Hilton Head Island High School Graduation 2009

I felt uncomfortable and a bit angry that these were the main values advocated for graduates, without mention of the flip side of will and determination – surrender and grace. Of course that reaction comes from my personal experience, when I acted from a place of feeling of “not enough,” applying my will and determination in an extreme and unhealthy way. I learned at SI (Semester Intensive) that for most people, the muscles of will and determination can be developed more, so perhaps they’re good values to be emphasized at a graduation.

At SI, many teachers introduced me to the idea that anger at something outside yourself is a sign that you haven’t quite accepted that part of yourself. My anger at the graduation was slight, but nonetheless, it was a sign that I still haven’t fully accepted my animal will and all its cronies. Don’t get me wrong, will can also be a very good value and tool. After all, we need it to get stuff done. For me, the problem is when getting stuff done becomes my entire life, my entire focus, my entire identity – goal goal goal – without allowing myself to just be and life to just unfold.

Since I know my own tendencies and therefore what messages drive me and what messages I want to drive me, I could let go of my desire to control the graduation speeches.

(and go back to my role as proud sister, letting a few tears well up...)

(and go back to my role as proud sister, letting a few tears well up...)

People (and companies) tell us what we “should” think, feel, say and do all the time – it’s up to you to chose what you want to think, feel, say and do.

P.S. On the back of the program it said “Balloons are eco-friendly.” What??

eco-friendly balloons?

eco-friendly balloons?


Meditate in a Hammock – just do it!

nowhere to go, nothing to do

nowhere to go, nothing to do

I’ve been taught a lot about meditation and contemplative practice in the past year.

For the three and a half months of SI, (Semester Intensive) we meditated in the mornings, we meditated at the beginning of most classes, we meditated as part  of our daily yoga classes, we meditated as part of our Yoga Philosophy and Practice class, we meditated under the guidance of some big name teachers such as Jill Satterfield, Ethan Nichtern, Noah Levine and Stephen Cope.

So what is meditation? Er…

… at the end of the program, that was actually one of the main questions I left pondering. I could write about one-pointed concentration, on breath, body, movement, mantra, or witness consciousness, observing one’s thoughts… but my type-A personality and my critical analysis approach engrained in me from education want more. I want to know how all these different meditation practices fit together, and what would best suit me and why and on and on…

Despite my lack of context, clear understanding or perspective on what meditation meant to me, I decided that I wanted to explore it more, so I made daily meditation one of my goals for the new year. So I’ve been meditating almost every day since January, with a break in personal practice when I did my yoga teacher training and visited friends, and I’m still not any more clear on any of these questions.

Recently I’ve noticed myself approaching my daily practices (meditation, yoga, journaling and photography) with a bit of a to-do list attitude. Ok, next, check, next, check, next, check… for somebody who set their intention for the year to be joyful, I knew I was veering off that path a bit.

As I approached my cushion this morning, the hammock was hanging over my yoga mat/meditation cushion because a visitor had used it the day before. I decided to give “hammock meditation” a try. I set the intention at the beginning of practice to be open and joyful. During the Speaking of Faith radio program this morning, Krista Tippett described how Thich Nhat Hanh often practices walking meditation hand in hand with a child because they act as complements to each other – the child feels the concentration and groundedness of the adult, and the adult gains the freshness and openness of the child.

I used the hammock as my child this morning, and it worked beautifully. I allowed myself to just be, which I think is an essence of meditation. I smiled. I lay still. I felt my body tingling, alive. I felt my feet slightly elevated. I felt myself supported by all those little, vibrant fibers. I felt myself swinging slightly and then coming to stillness. Nothing to do and nowhere to go.

I have wonderful memories of swinging and sleeping and reading and playing in this very hammock from childhood summers. I’ve been back home for a couple of months and had yet to lie in it for even a few minutes. It’s so easy for me to slip into all work and no play. I got a bunch of books on meditation from the library and was planning on reading them and looking around on blogs to try to figure out what my “next step” was for meditation. Instead, I’m making up my own meditation – the hammock meditation, and I’m going to give it a whirl for the next week.

Appendage – it occured to me that not everybody has a hammock handy, in which case I suggest you meditate with anything that reminds you of your childhood. If you try it, I’d love to hear how it went!

Teaching yoga – my first series

starring my beautiful friend Natanya in dancer pose

I teach my first “Beginning Yoga Flow” class at Core Pilates and Yoga studio (located on the South end of Hilton Head Island near the Sea Pines Circle) today from 4:30 to 5:30 PM. It will be every Wednesday, and a great way to ease into the physical practice of yoga. I’m excited to introduce people to my love!

Project 365

one of my favorite quotations from SI

This is one of my favorite quotations from SI. The photo is from my room, specifically of a box where I threw clothes, a yoga mat, the wall, the floor, and most importantly, the light shining in from our windows. Like yoga, for me photography is about being present. Sometimes, like in moments captured here, awareness can show you how beautiful our world can be.

I started Project 365 about a year and a half ago, but gave up after about a week. This time, I’m going to do it for real. It’s one of my more concrete “New Year Resolutions,” although I don’t really like that phrase because to me it implies duty in a negative way. I will use my will to follow through with this project, but I see it more as a fun exploration which I’m doing because I want to, not because I feel I should.

So, what is Project 365 anyway? It’s a challenge to take (and post, should I so chose, which I do) at least a photo a day. Read Photojo’s description for more information. By the way, if you’re at all interested in photography, Photojo has an amazing newsletter with a lot of good ideas.

I am doing Project 365 (hereby shortened to P365) because my primary intention for the upcoming year is to be joyful. As you might be able to guess from the name of this blog – clicksmile – taking photos makes me happy. It makes me feel connected to something outside myself – my environment, and maybe something more, perhaps spirit. I’m still trying to figure out what “spirit” means. What I do know, for now, is that I love photography, and I want to make it a constant part of my life. I also want to continue to grow as a photographer and a person. P365 will be a challenge in the best kind of way because I am really connected to my intentions behind my actions, which to me is the most important part of setting any goal.

I also love my life, and I want to share that love through my photographs. I went on hiatus with this blog while doing the Semester Intensive because I completely dedicated myself to that process, and now I’m in the position where I can and want to post. My photographs, which I will post as often as possible, will give me a reason to come back here and perhaps write as well.

The photograph in this post I actually took a couple of months ago, but it will have to do as filler for now because my computer is currently broken so I won’t be able to get photos up online for awhile. That could stop me, but it won’t. I will continue to take at least a photo a day (I started last night/early this morning and this afternoon), and they will be up as soon as possible.

Happy New Year!

Top 15 things I’d never do in the States that I did in Tanzania

(stolen and slightly edited from my friend Rachel’s blog)

15. Become shocked when I see women’s knees or shoulders.

14. See a white person on the street and assume I know them.

13. Not get insulted when people shout mzungu (white person in Swahili) as if it were my name.

12. Not stop to look when I see a monkey. Or scream when I see a snake (yes, slithering under the door in my home stay house).

11. Throw an orange peel out the window. (I still don’t know how I feel about this one.)

10. Walk two miles to school to get internet and then literally wait 5 minutes for a page to load.

9. Not flinch at all when I see a chicken in the bus that I’m on.

8. Let 25 dirty children play with my hair.

7. Spend a large portion of my time explaining why I don’t go to church on Sunday.

6. Wait for two hours at a restaurant for my food and not complain, or receive any kind of apology.

5. Pay ten times more for a mediocre slice of mzungu pizza than a hearty plate of rice and beans.

4. Celebrate when I take a bite of food without finding grit in it.

3. Consider it a miracle when I find a bathroom with toilets, toilet paper, running water AND soap, regardless of how bad it smells.

2. Look at a 16 seat van with 25 people packed in it and assume there is still plenty of room to hop on.

1. Hang out with lions, zebras, giraffes, elephants, and hippos.

I feel like this actually really encapsulates a lot of my experiences.